How To Bypass Legal Trouble When Shooting A TV Commercial

Businesses continue to invest thousands of dollars in ad spend to produce TV commercials.

To broadcast a 30-second commercial on a national network like ABC, advertisers expect to spend at least $115,000 on average. For even more context, this only covers the cost of broadcasting the commercial, not producing it. 

When and where the commercial airs also affects this cost in a very real way. 

Airing a commercial during an early morning slot rather than an evening slot may shave down your broadcasting costs, but in doing so, you run the risk of reaching less people. 

The same principle applies to where a commercial is broadcasted: it’s far more expensive to distribute a commercial to viewers in a highly populated city than to viewers in a small town. 

As you probably know, there’s a direct correlation between cost and outreach. 

When planning for your next TV ad campaign, your team finalizes every major decision after first considering the potential pitfalls or successes that might occur once the commercial airs. 

If you’re investing thousands of dollars into an ad, you want to make sure that your team is making a wise investment. 

The last thing you want is to direct most of your ad spend to commercial video that provide little ROI or, even worse, don’t comply with the legal side of corporate video production. 

To help you produce TV commercials that are legally protected, this article details the processes for licensing copyrighted music, working with talent, and filming on location. 

Music Licensing For Commercials

While lighting setups, sound equipment, and camera gear are all integral parts of video production, we tend to underplay the importance and complexity of the music licensing process in this process.

To get permission to use one song in a TV commercial, you might have to enter into long negotiations with multiple copyright owners who lay claim to both the song and the sound recording. 

There are many layers to the music licensing side of video production, and it can take weeks if not months to finalize this part of the process. 

In the next two sections, I share which music licenses you need to secure and why you have to fill out cue sheets to include copyrighted music in TV commercials. 

The Licenses You Need To Build A Commercial’s Soundtrack

The thing about music licensing is that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all license. 

Different licenses grant you different types of permissions. And depending on the type of project you’re working on, you might need a combination of two or more licenses before you can use a song in your video.

To be able to use music in TV commercials, you need to secure a master use license, a sync license, and (potentially) a mechanical license.

So let’s break down what each of these licenses do. 

  1. A master use license allows you to use the master recording of a song in a visual or audio project. This type of license doesn’t give you permission to re-record the song — you have to take it as-is.
  2.  If you do want to use a re-recorded version of a song, you want to secure a sync license. This license is required anytime a copyrighted song is featured in visual media (i.e., commercials, YouTube videos, films, etc.).   
  3. A mechanical license is needed if you want to modify and re-record a song in any way for your commercial. 

Even though there are other types of music licenses, these three are ones that you will most likely need when producing a TV commercial. 

Don’t Underestimate The Importance Of Cue Sheets 

Once you find and license copyrighted music for your commercial, there is one final legal step to take before broadcasting the ad: you have to fill out a cue sheet(s).

A cue sheet is a form that is completed any time a copyrighted song will be used in cable television or film. 

If you skip this step in the process and share your commercial publicly, the copyright owners of the music have the ability to take legal action against you. The licenses you secured might not specify that you can use the music for this purpose, which is where the cue sheet comes in. 

Submitting this document to copyright owners is a simple way to make sure that they approve the use of their music in your commercial.

How To Legally Film Talent In Public Locations

On the filming side of video production, there are a few specific legal steps that you should take to ensure that both the actors and the commercial are legally protected.

A Talent Release Form

A talent release form is an important document that has to be filled out by every actor in your commercial ahead of shooting. This gives you their consent to use their name, voice, and performance in your video content. 

If you’re working with minors, their legal guardians will need to fill out a form on their behalf. 

A Film Notice Or Location Release

When a commercial shoot is slated to take place in a public place, it’s not always possible to get a signature on a talent release form from every passerby.

In this situation, you can distribute filming notices in the area a few days ahead of the shoot to let commuters know that you will be filming there.

To film on private property, however, you have to fill out a location release form and get permission from the property owners in order to shoot there.    

How To Make Sure Video Production Is By The Book

Producing a TV commercial is an intensive process that requires many different people to collaborate across many different departments. 

Not only do production teams write the script, hire the actors, and direct the shoot, they must also take proactive measures to ensure that they have all of their legal bases covered.  

This article detailed a few of the main areas that need legal backing, but if you ever doubt whether your method is sound, it’s always a best practice to seek legal advice. 

That way, you can rest assured that you’ve taken every step necessary to broadcast your commercial without any issues.  

Mackenzie is a copywriter at Soundstripe, a royalty free music company that provides filmmakers with stock music, video, and sound effects. 

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