We’ve all been there: waiting for the bus, chilling at the coffee shop, or lying in bed before falling asleep.

You pull out your phones and start scrolling, watching the latest trends. Sometimes you even have a song in your head for the whole day, showing up on every video on your feed. It’s everywhere!

And then it happens.

The song hits the top of the charts… and everyone knows it as “that TikTok song”.

TikTok has become one of the most popular apps globally, especially among younger audiences. So much so that, in 2021, according to data from Cloudflare, TikTok came out on top as one of the most popular domains over other sites like Google and Facebook.

But how has TikTok changed the way we enjoy and discover new music? And how is it affecting the legal side of the industry?

There are a lot of doubts when it comes to copyrighting music on TikTok – which is fair, because, let’s be honest, copyrights are confusing to start with, and social media only introduces more complexity. It all brings up questions like:

  • Is TikTok allowed to share music freely for others to use?
  • Are they actually infringing on copyrights?
  • Can you use copyrighted music on your TikTok content?
  • How can you avoid getting your account banned?
  • Are labels and artists getting royalties from TikTok?

These and other questions will be answered in the article below. So, take a seat. Grab your mobile / adjust your laptop screen (or whatever you’re reading on). Put some music on, and let’s dig into how TikTok operates and handles the complexity of dealing with music copyright to give users the best possible experience.

The story of TikTok

You know the basics: TikTok is an app where you can upload short videos, share your lifestyle, dance, sing along / lip-sync, and do pretty much whatever you can fit into a 15-second video. Additionally, the app allows you to add your sounds and music into the background, as well as giving you a ton of effects and filters to play with.

But let’s go back a bit to when the now-global phenomenon was just a rising, brand new app from China. Charting TikTok’s origins will help us to understand why it has become such a dominant force in music.

TikTok, known as Douyin in China (which in Chinese means “vibrating sound”), is a social network focused on vertical video format, where users can upload short videos from 15 seconds to 1 minute (although in less than a year, it has expanded twice up to 3 and 10 minutes – a trend that’s unlikely to stop).

At the same time that TikTok came into popularity, there was another app called Musical.ly around. It was similar to Douyin, except that it was more focused on lip-synching videos, which were also from 15 seconds to 1 minute long. On Musical.ly, you had the choice to upload a song from your device and share it over the app.

And so it happened: The company that owned Douyin, ByteDance, bought Musical.ly, merging both of the platforms’ best features and data into a single app that was renamed TikTok for the global audience (although, fun fact, in China, it’s still known as Douyin).

TikTok’s best features

One of the things that makes TikTok so addictive is also what makes it different from other social networks. On TikTok, when you open the app, the first thing you’ll see is the “for you” section with recommendations. That content is curated by the algorithm of the app.

This means you get to see the content you might like, according to what you’ve watched, liked, or followed before, instead of seeing posts from people you follow, as you do on most of the other social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, etc.).

This tends to catch your attention and make you watch incessantly, generating more content for you to watch the next time you open TikTok.

For creators, artists, and brands, this is a good way to be discovered, interact with fans, and promote creative work.

The rise of TikTokers

There’s no doubt TikTok has grown a lot since the pandemic. In terms of audience, there’s been a sharp spike, with the platform reaching a new peak in the first quarter of 2020, with more than 2 billion downloads, according to an analysis by Sensor Tower.

It’s not a secret that during the lockdown the use of mobile phones increased, and people started using TikTok because it was a simple app to create or watch other creators, explore new hobbies, or just enjoy some tailored entertainment.

With TikTok’s challenges, people stayed connected during the lockdowns and have continued to upload new content ever since.

By the end of 2023, TikTok is predicted to reach 834.3 million monthly active users, consolidating its position as the third most popular social media, behind Facebook and Instagram. Furthermore, TikTok is more appealing to Gen Z users than the Meta platforms, which are more popular among the older Millennials. Therefore, TikTok gives a more long-term overview of users’ behavior and how younger audiences experience entertainment.

TikTok’s strategy on music

The features within TikTok allow you to use music in your videos. For musicians, that capability is a powerful tool for promoting your work. It’s not uncommon to see artists using these platforms to promote their work, either to show their creative process or share their latest single or album.

But after watching many videos and discovering or re-discovering music, one can’t stop but wonder:

How does TikTok deal with music copyrights? Like, is it ok for anyone to use music in their videos? Isn’t it the property of the artists? Does TikTok have a policy that respects intellectual property?

Given that other platforms like YouTube are known for their strict rules to protect copyright, it seems like TikTok’s best feature may be a risk for the Chinese social network.

Let’s delve into the problem and talk a little bit more about copyrights in music.

TikTok vs. copyright: The struggles

First, let’s give a definition: A copyright is a legal right that protects original works (like music, songwriting, composition, etc.). The basic idea is this: Let’s say you own the rights to a song. No one else can use it for their purposes without previous agreement or authorization by you. If they did, they would be infringing upon your copyright.

That’s the simple version, but things get more complicated pretty quickly. In the music industry, there are a two types of copyrights:

  1. Composition copyrights: This refers to protection of the music and lyrics of a song.
  2. Sound recording copyrights: This refers to a particular recorded version of a song.

Again, things can get complicated, but the main gist is that artists or labels are (usually) the owners of songs, and no one can use their works unless they have been given previous authorization. Without authorization, the use of a song is illegal.

As a result, it’s common to see these issues with copyright online, mostly on YouTube, where creators add music to their content without notifying the copyright owners. On that platform, this often results in rights holders requesting that a creator delete their video; sometimes, it even leads to the suspension or cancellation of an account.

TikTok is different, though.

In the beginning, TikTok restrictions were not very rigid at all. Actually, it took some lawsuits from bigger companies in the industry for them to start paying attention to the copyright issue.

At first, TikTok resolved this by banning accounts or deleting videos. But with the content going viral, the damage was already done. Artists and labels were not happy with their music streaming worldwide without any form of control. TikTok was accused of not being strict with its copyright policy and was forced to do something about it.

The problem was that TikTok’s main feature – the backbone of the platform – was including music and sounds in videos. So, the question was this:

How could they manage to keep offering users the ability to add music to videos without being flagged as copyright infringers?

As you may have guessed, there’s an answer.

How does TikTok comply with copyright music?

It comes down to one word, really: partnerships.

TikTok, being the popular app with the appeal to use music for your content, had to take action on this. The answer came with a partnership. The company was able to reach several short-term agreements with major record labels such as Sony Music Entertainment, Warner Music, and Universal Music Group. From there, most indie distributors have followed suit.

Ultimately, the deals were kind of win-win situation. Labels and distributors agree to add their products to the app’s music library for promotion, and TikTok makes sure that rights owners receive proper compensation.

As TikTok was not originally built around monetization, video creators do not get any income from their videos using copyrighted music.

But TikTok maintains a music library for end-users to choose from, and artists get discovered and streamed worldwide.

Many top songs from Spotify and other music platforms come from TikTok. Remember that most videos stick to 15 seconds. Therefore, it’s clear why you would want to listen to a full song you liked – you want to hear the whole thing! In the end, the situation can beneficial to the artists.

To sum it up:

  • TikTok’s agreements with major labels allow them to have music within the app available to end-users.
  • Each time a song is used and played, the owner of the rights receives the royalties, not the creator of the video or TikTok.
  • As a creator, you won’t receive a copyright notice. Your video won’t be deleted, and your account will not be banned as long as you use the in-app library (more on this in a moment).

A guide to avoiding copyright issues on TikTok

Now, let’s break down the dos and don’ts of TikTok regarding copyright.

If you’re an artist or have legal rights over intellectual property and want to create content on TikTok, you should be aware of the following:

  • TikTok does not offer copyright protection. You must already have the rights to your work to be added to their library and have a digital music distributor.
  • It’s your responsibility to let your distributor or record label know before deciding to add your music to TikTok’s library.
  • For most distributors, you’ll need to submit a form for your music to be available on TikTok. Same if you want it removed.
  • In case you also create content on TikTok, you don’t need to do all the procedures to get your music on the platform. You can just upload it yourself.
  • It is recommended, if you find someone using your music without your permission, to contact the user and ask them to delete the content. But you can also file a report. You may find more info about this in the Intellectual Property Policy on TikTok’s webpage.

As a creator, the best way to avoid copyright issues with your content is to make sure you follow these guidelines when uploading a new video:

  • Make sure you only select music from the in-app library. Uploading a song from your phone may result in copyright infringement (unless you have the creator’s authorization).
  • Avoid recording music playing in the background. Audio from radio, TV, or other sources. If the song you want is available in the app, choose it from there instead.
  • Some songs are not available in certain countries. You should be careful about this. Don’t try to upload it yourself, claiming TikTok has an agreement with the artist.

Now for business accounts, consider this:

  • With verified businesses and brands, this works a little bit differently because they are offered a commercial music library, which diverges from the one for creators. It only suggests sounds that are licensed for commercial use.
  • If you have the approval to use a song that is not in the commercial library, you can upload it from another source. But be aware you will need to prove that you’re authorized to use it.

The future of TikTok in the music industry

TikTok has been a massive force in the music industry, thanks to its recommendation function, which allows every creator to be viewed by non-followers.

Just in 2020, TikTok claimed that over 70 artists had received major label deals, and many others have made it onto Rolling Stone’s Breakthrough 25 chart.

Recently, TikTok launched SoundOn, its platform for music marketing and distribution. To give undiscovered music creators an easy way to upload their music on TikTok and other streaming platforms.

This sounds like a good deal, but is it as good as it looks?

Some of the benefits SoundOn grants to music creators include:

  • 100% royalties for unlimited time on TikTok and Resso (a music service affiliate to TikTok).
  • 100% royalties on other global music platforms the first year and 90% in the years after.
  • No administration fees.
  • Maintain 100% ownership of the music.

With this initiative, could TikTok become a crucial competitor for labels? Only time will tell. What’s clear, at the moment, is that TikTok is embracing its role as a major industry influencer.

Final thoughts on TikTok copyrights

TikTok’s influence has undeniably been spreading in the music industry. What started as a social app to create content and have fun has evolved into a whole new creative enterprise. But right now, we are still at an early stage to say what’s going to happen – and if there’s one thing that’s constant in the music industry, it’s change.

Long-story-short, we still have to see if the agreements TikTok has made in the past few years will continue.

In the meantime, though, let’s enjoy TikTok for what it is: a crazy-engaging platform built on the power of music.