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How Does Tik Tok Use Music Legally?

Posted by Jamie on June 7, 2019

TikTok is still a tour de force in music apps and shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. The short music lip syncing craze is still burning white hot within the teen demographic and the app is still up there at the top of the download charts. But how does TikTok avoid copyright action? How does TikTok use music legally?

The most important thing for TikTok users to know is that all of the music available on the platform is legal to use in your own videos. If you use the TikTok music library, you should never be subject to a DMCA requests or any legal action. Royalties are paid and the music is licensed so you’re covered.

The fight between rights holders and apps like TikTok is one that offers daily headlines for those of us that follow such things. With studios and publishers fighting to retain their cash cows and companies being set up to specifically assist with digital rights, how does an app built around music such as TikTok remain legal while using music protected by copyright?

It’s no secret that TikTok has courted controversy with its practices but it seems to work and with hundreds of millions of users across the world, it seems users don’t care either way as long as they can still create their 15 second videos and share them.

Now back to the legality of the platform.

TikTok and copyright

TikTok doesn’t really advertise its business practices but it is sort of widely known that it has struck deals with rights holders and pays royalties in return for being able to use their music. It’s the same kind of arrangement that apps, websites, YouTube, streamers, podcasts, radio stations and other broadcasters pay.

It’s usually a set fee or percentage in return for being able to use artist’s music on their platform. There is nothing published about how much that might be but I’m sure it’s a decent chunk of change. These arrangements seem to be negotiated per platform and as far as I can tell, there is no set fee of ‘x amount per 100 tracks’ or something. I’m sure there is some very complicated math and legalese involved but I haven’t seen it.

Most of the music you can hear on TikTok and most places online is licensed in this way. That’s how TikTok is still going and not facing a thousand lawsuits from rights holders about misusing their property. If you play licensed music, the rights holders get a cut. If you sell licensed music, the rights holders get a percentage.

TikTok and new artists

TikTok also features new and up and coming artists on the platform. In return for some publicity on the huge network, TikTok gets to use their tracks for free or a modest sum. If you’re a newcomer or unsigned act, having a potential audience of close to a billion people is going to be attractive. Getting no cash in return isn’t so good but that audience could lead to a contract which could lead to cash.

There is no data that I can find that shows how many tracks on TikTok are from new or unsigned artists but I imagine it’s a small percentage compared to signed artists. After all, there’s no point putting together a lip sync video if nobody has ever heard the track. However, it is a part of TikTok and one that could act as a catalyst for great things on the platform.

TikTok and controversy

TikTok has been subject to continued criticism about how much it pays rights holders to use their music and I’m not sure it’s going to go away anytime soon. This piece over at Pitchfork is a less than complementary analysis of TikTok and how it can be used to promote new artists but seems very slow in compensating them. It’s a long read but a very interesting one.

If you don’t want to read the whole thing, two quotes sum up its opinion of TikTok.

‘TikTok (and its predecessor Musical.ly) have adopted an approach to licensing similar to that which rightsholders regularly accuse YouTube of. It’s either you can sign this contract and get paid something, or don’t sign the contract and your music’s still going to be here but you’re not going to get paid anything. You’re going to have to deal with DMCA takedowns. Goodbye.’

And.

Brett Gurewitz, the founder of Epitaph and a longtime member of the punk band Bad Religion, has a different take on the situation. He likens today’s TikTok deals to a long, sad history of music industry swindles. ‘It’s what we saw with Chuck Berry getting a Cadillac instead of royalties,’ he says. ‘It doesn’t really matter if it’s vinyl or an app, every time there’s a new way of doing music, the creators always get screwed.’

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