It's generally known that if you use a song to create a music video, you must have obtained a master use license to publish the track as a part of the music video, and also a synchronization license to synchronize your video with the music.

However, what happens if you make a music video using the song, and then you remove the audio from it when publishing? That way, to view it as intended, the viewer will need to obtain a personal license for the music, for example from a streaming service, and start the music track at the same time as the video starts. The video metadata could point viewers to ways to legally listen to the song, and that it is recommended to view the video with the audio in the background.

What license, if any, would this usage require? My intuition is that this still requires the synchronization license, as the video is still synchronized to the audio, it's just that they're stored separately. On the other hand, an argument could be made that a sync license is made available for a specific recording while this video works with any cover version.

I'm interested in answers both specific to the environment as well as for general distribution.

  • 1
    Hard question. Well posed. Almost surely has an answer. I don't know what it is without extensive research.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Nov 17, 2020 at 4:09
  • 2
    I mean, this isn't a new idea. It pre-dates Youtube. If you've ever heard the meme "The Dark Side of Oz" which started in the early 90s and holds that if you start the Pink Floyd album "Darkside of the Moon" at the exact right moment, it syncs up perfectly with "The Wizard of Oz" film. There was even a parody of the "The Wizard of Oz" done by the Muppets where one character breaks the fourth wall to let the viewers know they need to start Darkside of the Moon at this point in the film (which, was sadly the best gag in the parody.).
    – hszmv
    Commented Nov 17, 2020 at 14:56

2 Answers 2


Copyright right prohibits the creation of derivative works as well as copies of copyrighted material.

This video might be a derivative work, but the mere timing of the video in line with the music probably isn't suggestive enough to by a copyright violation in the case of most popular music, because genre specific conventions about tempo (beats per minute) and meter are so strong in most pop music genres that the connection with the source song, based upon pacing alone, would be impossible to link to a source song and would be protected by the scènes à faire doctrine (which is a principle in copyright law in which certain elements of a creative work are held to be not protected when they are mandated by or customary to the genre).

If your source song has a very distinctive collection of tempos and meters, such as Bohemian Rhapsody, or perhaps its Maori language cover, on the other hand . . . you might have a problem.

So, usually, to cross the line over into being a derivative work, the content of the music video, and not just its pacing, would have to establish the connection (e.g. visuals that match the content of the lyrics at each moment of the song).

Ultimately, of course, the answer the question of whether a work is an infringing derivative work, or is just a similar work whose similarities are due to genre conventions, or is protected by the fair use doctrine, is more art than science.

The set of pairs of works for which you could claim an infringement plausibly enough to overcome a motion for summary judgment in a court case and get to a jury to make a decision on the merits, is much larger than the set of works which a jury would actually find to be infringing. The less open and shut a derivative work case is, the less likely it is to be the subject of an infringement suit, but people are motivated to bring infringement suits for reasons that go beyond economic rationality and the strength of the case on the legal merits.

There is a large gray area and how potential infringements in that area are handled in practice is subject to all sorts of complicated, context specific considerations.

I was approached once to bring a somewhat similar infringement case, and declined to do so, in part based upon legal analysis, and in part, based upon gut feeling. Ultimately, another lawyer took on that case and lost.


Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer and the advise provided is from independent research and past knowledge.

If there is no copyrighted music present, the video will not be affected by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), since the only content present is a dance. You are also permitted to use the name of a song in the title of your YouTube video (See Ref 1). However, directly encouraging your audience to play the specific music with the video, through separate music streaming applications, is a legal grey zone.

Don't write:
Music Video for "Song Name". Play it together at the same time with streaming
Which will tell the audience to bypass licensing by using a personal license with a music streaming account.

To stay safe, in the description write something like:
Music Video for "Song Name"; meant to be played synchronously.
Which will tell people that the video was designed to be played at the same time, without instructing the audience to play any music.

The key difference is that by removing "with streaming" you are simply stating the intended way to enjoy the video rather than telling them to play a specific piece of music with the video.

References and Additional Links:
Ref 1:

Copyright law provides exclusive protection to someone who creates an original work of authorship that is fixed in a tangible medium of expression. What does that mean to people who don't understand legalese? It means that the thing you create must be:

  • Some type of creative expression (such as a painting or song) which is;
  • Sufficiently original and independently conceived by its creator that is;
  • In some permanently stored format so that it can be reproduced (such as a painting on canvas but not a design drawn in water which is only visible for a moment.)

Song titles generally don't fall within the protection of copyright law since most are not sufficiently original or independently conceived by the artist. Are phrases like "born to run" or "on the road again" sufficiently original so as to deserve legal protection?

Ref 2 (Derivative Works):

  • 5
    You can be a derivative work without incorporating any of the original into your work. So, even without encouraging the audience, it isn't automatically in the clear.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Nov 17, 2020 at 4:10
  • 1
    I'm not sure I follow how those two descriptions differ. How is one directly encouraging it and the other not? It might help if you cited some of the independent research you did in your post.
    – Ryan M
    Commented Nov 17, 2020 at 9:15
  • @ohwilleke >You can be a derivative work without incorporating any of the original -- how does that work? I thought that a derivative work always had to incorporate some property of the original to be considered derivative. In my music video example that would be the timing of the cues and the length of the song, although I don't believe those can be considered sufficiently original to be copyrightable.
    – Danya02
    Commented Nov 17, 2020 at 13:08
  • "by removing "with streaming" you are simply stating the intended way to enjoy the video" -- I'm not sure, but I think you can make the argument that the music is such an important component of the music video that viewing it without it isn't enjoyable. It's not a perfect analogy, but it's like you sold flash drives and said "works best with a PC" -- it's true, but only in the sense that it's useless without a PC. And if PCs were illegal or regulated, you can say that by selling a thing that only works with one, you're encouraging consumers to obtain one (possibly illegally).
    – Danya02
    Commented Nov 17, 2020 at 13:17
  • 3
    Derivative works either need permission from the copyright holder, or must clearly fall in fair use.
    – DapperDuck
    Commented Nov 17, 2020 at 13:18

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