Unfair & Unworkable: Why The Digital DJ Licence Is A Farce

Digital insanity

Bought tracks from Beatport or anywhere else online? You need a licence to use them in the club - at least, you do if you live in the UK, Canada, Finland, Italy... and that's just the start of it.

In most countries and throughout the recent history of public performance of music, the person who benefits from the profits of that performance has always had to be the one to pay for some kind of public performance licence. The money from there goes to those who were involved in the making of the music.

So far so good, right? Everyone's happy! So why is it that in some countries, digital DJs (note: only digital DJs) are now being asked to buy a licence, too?

Come again... digital DJ licence?

You may well blink at that. After all, imperfect though it may be, the system of a venue having to have a licence makes sense, right? After all, the venue ultimately benefits from the playing of music on its premises, in the form of profit. Everyone else (including the DJ - or musicians, come to that) is paid a wage or fee for their work.

Yet in some countries, it seems that's no longer enough. What I'm about to reveal hasn't as far as we know been mooted in the USA yet (correct me if we're wrong), but certainly in the UK, Finland, Canada and Italy, digital DJs now need a licence of their own to perform, and have for quite a while, actually.

The licences are broadly for the privilege of being able to "publicly play digital copies of copyrighted music". That means you can buy a record, and play it - no licence needed. Buy a CD and play it - no licence needed. But buy a CD and rip it to your laptop to play using Serato or Traktor, or to put onto a USB stick to play in a venue, and you need a licence.

Sound ridiculous? It gets worse. Bought a track on Beatport to play in your next DJ set? Check the small print... Beatport (yes, the DJ download store) only licences you to use that copy for personal purposes. After all, what DJ would ever want to, y'know, play a track bought at a DJ stores in a public DJ set? Outcome? Yup, you guessed it - you need a licence.

(The fact that when they sell you a CD, that is also usually only licensed for personal use makes it even more baffling.)

Oh, and finally, if you remix a track, it appears you're not covered even if you do buy this licence. So no more little re-edits or mashups done at home then played at the club. I wonder if Stems, Remix Sets or particularly cool DJing count as "remixes", too? Your guess, dear reader, is as good as mine...


A modern DJ system. If you play a piece of vinyl, no licence needed. If you play a music file using timecode vinyl and the laptop, you need a licence. Put a CD in the media player? You're good. Put a USB in? Sorry, you need a licence... Duh?!

Surely that's unfair?

It would seem so, wouldn't it? How can it be seen as anything but discrimination against digital DJs? While we're all for licence money being collected and distributed to the artists concerned (and we love auto collection of playlists, for instance, to help with that), the fact that you can DJ in these countries using vinyl or CD without a licence, but to play your music in a digital format you need one, is ridiculous - isn't it?

Also, how exactly can they enforce this? Hang around DJ booths checking if you're playing CDs, vinyl or digital copies? Slap a fine on you if you're doing more than just playing a track, doing more than a vinyl DJ could? ("He's looping! That counts as remixing! Get 'im!")

It would be interesting to know whether these licences cover using Spotify and the like in DJ sets (especially as DJ software increasingly includes streaming services), although I'd guess not - after all, that's an excuse for another licence, right?

Basically this seems to be a classic case of technology moving faster than sensible laws, or if we're being cynical, a case of introducing a tax where before, there wasn't one. Either way, we think it's unfair and introduces unnecessary stress on DJs who now have one more thing to worry about - and to pay for.

• Find out more about the licences talked about here in this Wikipedia article.

What's the law in your country? Have you got a "digital DJ licence"? Do you have to submit setlists? Ever got in trouble for not having one? Let us know in the comments.

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  1. I'm thankful there isn't that here in the US.

    The music industry seems more hellbent on DJs who upload mixes in the "wrong places" or especially try to make money off their materials beyond the club or event.

    Just the other day I was looking into making videos of my mixes and uploading them on YouTube, but immediately my test video was blocked in many countries due to licensing and legal deals YouTube has with the companies...thus I scrapped my plan. Wasn't even looking to monetize, just see if I could do it.

  2. Petar Sekulic says:

    in my country it's even more funny...police can take all your equipment without any warning, i mean, they should give you one to turn it down, but you can't prove that they didn't...and yes, the club continues working as nothing happened...it doesn't anything to do with licencing, it's just about noise, which they don't mesure in db and even if they do you can't prove where and on what did they do it........i can't even start to imagine what will happen when they add the licencing, barely anyone has even windows licence here and dj software licence...and after all the money you can earn at a gig it's even funnier

  3. Lorie Johnson says:

    I just looked at how much these licenses cost- are they kidding? I think it's a money grab, to be honest. Any profession that permits someone to bootstrap themselves and be a freelancer is a target for licensing. Governments (and the music business) cannot abide free-lancers. More and more of these professions are getting caught in this trap- including in the US. Music performance has always been a sticky wicket. I prefer to pay the artists directly (like on Bandcamp) but that doesn't guarantee rights to play the music in public. Seems like some stream-lining and middleman elimination needs to happen.

  4. Basically, they want to create the music, sell the music, and charge for promotion of said music. Good idea. /sarcasm

  5. Todd Oddity says:

    The Canadian system is totally outdated (it was mostly put in place as CDs were just starting to become a thing) but it also isn't mandatory (which is probably why there hasn't been much push to update it). If you get your music from an 'authorized source' (music distribution services, record pools, etc) you don't need any further licence.

    Because the regulations are so outdated, technically, even if you did get a licence, anything you downloaded wouldn't be covered. The licence only covers music bought in hard copy and then transferred onto your computer - you still need to be able to prove you have the original disc or record!

    • Oddie O'Phyle says:

      Hey Todd, there is a license for digital media stored on hard drive. It's about $350, but considering it's supposed to be for professionals it only allows for an audio quality of up to MP3 320kbps.

      • Todd Oddity says:

        Yes, I'm aware, but that hard drive licence you mention is only for media you have hard copies of, not downloaded tracks. If you read the small print, downloaded content isn't covered. So the only downloaded content that would technically be legal would be from a registered pool or distribution service, in which case you don't need a hard drive licence.

        So my point remains, the regulations are woefully outdated.

        • Oddie O'Phyle says:

          I'm completely agreeing with you. Not only is it a decade out of date, but the terms and conditions of the working license make it completely useless. It was just another cash grab, with no research done. Harper and his group of idiots trying to control "the cyber".

  6. DJ Peter says:

    Well, in respons to this we could answer with a ban list. Just simply ban all artists belonging to blacklisted labels from being played. I would be an interesting period... How would all of you who also produce your own music consider to sign to a label knowing your music would never be played by any DJ anywhere in the world. The smaller independent labels wouldn't be affected as much as the big ones. Check which labels always are the ones that block your videos on Youtube. Those are the labels that would be at risk getting banned the most while the ones that only show ads and collect stats will probably be more prone to let their music be played without further charges. They are for the most already in the underground scene and these DJ's/producers already make their money playing the music they make. Releasing good music is more a way to get the fame that will get them a bigger pay check. In Sweden DJ's don't have this problem as the venues pay the fees necessary. ...but that could of course change fast. It would definitely make it harder for new DJ's to enter the scene and the club owners would have to pay more to the DJ's still willing to pay/play. It would be interesting to hear artists view on this matter.

    • Oddie O'Phyle says:

      This isn't from the labels or the artists. This is about government legislation in the form of licensing for the purpose of complying with copyright laws. Labels don't make the laws or enforce them, it's your government that sets these laws, charges you and takes you to court.

      • Technically that's true ... and I don't know where you're from, and I'm sure the politics vary from country to country, but here in the US, when laws of this kind are passed, it is *always* in response to pressure from the entertainment industry.

        • Oddie O'Phyle says:

          I'm just north of you, in the land of strong beer. In most countries, I've found that it's about the bigger entertainment industry corporations sending out lobbyists for legislation on control. Ok, fine, you want to control the industry to protect creative property... I'm fine with that, but far too often the money doesn't go to the artist and small labels that put out music. Personally, I don't touch anything top 40's, so none of this money goes to any of the artists that I support.

  7. John Gru says:

    Thanks for bringing this up, Phil!

    In Latvia digital DJs have to buy a yearly "reproduction" license that costs 142.28 EUR. One can also get a single event license for 28.46 EUR. Obviously the respective law is nowhere near being perfect (as in all other countries mentioned here). And I think the governing institutions have understood that during the last few years therefore raids seem to be quite uncommon here.

    I use Windows 10 + Traktor (both legitimately purchased) and most of my collection consists of tracks purchased @ Traxsource which in its ToS explicitly states that DJs may make copies of their tracks AND play them publicly as part of DJ performances. Therefore I don't believe I (as a digital DJ) shall buy any licenses at all. They also milk the bars/clubs by having them purchase a public performance license anyway.

    Licensed DJs must submit their setlists as well but that's complete nonsense too, in my opinion. DJs here don't/can't possibly earn enough money to support themselves without having some kind of a "normal" job. Using legitimate software & purchasing their tracks @ legit DJ download stores (Traxsource, Beatport, Juno) should be enough, in my opinion.

  8. aldoboymusic says:

    Do digital DJ's here in the UK need a license for playing out in public, or has that legislation not hit our shores yet...

    • Not familiar first hand, though Phil mentions above "UK, Finland, Canada and Italy, digital DJs now need a licence of their own to perform", so I imagine...yes?

    • Ian Sawyer says:

      Yep you apparently need a ProDub licence to legally DJ digitally, I bought one last year to make sure I was legit, cost around £350 including VAT which covers me for up to 15,000 tracks. Here's an excerpt from the FAQ on their website http://www.prsformusic.com/users/recordedmedia/produb/pages/produblicence.aspx :-

      2. What does the ProDub licence allow me to do?
      In very simple terms the ProDub licence allows an individual to copy music they own onto various formats and devices, such as from their CDs to their laptop, for the purpose of using that device or format to undertake professional or semi-professional performances, such as those undertaken by DJs, karaoke jockeys, fitness instructors, performers etc.

      3. As I have already paid for the music I am copying, why do I still need to pay for a ProDub licence?
      When you purchase recordings, for example CDs from a record store or downloads from a legitimate online music service, you are only buying the right to listen to these recordings for private and domestic uses. This is why these recordings normally state that any unauthorised copying, hiring, broadcasting, etc of them is not permitted. If you therefore wish to make copies of these recordings for the purpose of carrying out performances such as DJing or conducting fitness classes or any other public performance, then you need to obtain a licence, which in these circumstances is the ProDub licence. If you are a health and fitness professional, and you purchase all of your music from a company which is licensed under the Fitness Music Services (FMS) Licence, you may not require a ProDub licence. Please check with your music provider.

  9. DJ Antique says:

    Just another government intervention to make money from any avenue possible. The man always trin' to keep me down!!!

  10. BlackWhiteX says:

    Here in Italy the system applies to all DJs. The agency controlling licensing is called SIAE, and they basically set the price based on a number of factors, such as venue size, number of tickets sold, type of gear used. Usually, it is the venues job to request a permit in order to be allowed to have a DJ playing. Those permits usually start at 100 - 150 € for the smallest venues and the most basic permit. If you have a DJ playing vinyl, an extra fee applies, if you have multiple DJs you pay an extra for each of them, and if your revenue goes over 2000€ during the night, they also cash in a 5% of it. For some events they request 5% of all ticket sales as well (and then also the other 5% of the revenue).
    THEN the DJ comes into play - he must be able to prove that all of his tracks are paid for and from legitmate sources. He must have a DJ license, which depends on how many tracks he is planning on adding to his library in one year (200€/year if less than 2.500 copies, 400€/year if more).
    Furthermore, at the end of the evening, every DJ must complete a declaration form, where he must list ALL the tracks he played during the night. The SIAE will occasionally perform controls, where they put up a small recorder and record the set for three hours. Then they cross-check the tracks played with the ones declared on the form. If there are mismatches, fines for both the DJ and the venue apply.

    In reality not a lot of people give a damn about all those regulations. In fact, almost no DJ here (including myself) has one of those licenses, because simply no-one ever checks them. The venues usually tell the DJ to just fill in around 30 tracks on the form, and you just choose random tracks, without checking if the track has been played or not.
    I recently became friends with a guy who works for said agency, and he revealed to me that the recordings they make at a venue and the cross-checking of the tracks is simply for internal use, and that no-one ever gives a damn about how many tracks match those that are on the list.

  11. Steven Brabazon says:

    So is purchasing songs on Beatport Traxsource etc, ripping them to CD then playing the CD at a gig classed as ok?

    • Christian Yates says:

      I'm not 100% sure, probably best to check the terms and conditions. Off the top of my head, Beatport doesn't *technically* allow for you to do this but Traxsource does.

  12. Dj Snowbro says:

    I live in Belgium and we're "blessed" with SABAM, who caters for the authors en composers, but we also have to pay Billijke vergoeding, which caters for the performers and producers (when playing their recorded stuff, when they play live, no billijke vergoeding is required). So it's the same, but not quite, so you have to pay for both. Usually, it's the bar/venue which pays for this.

    Then , there's the dj license. This had to be payed by the dj. Use your own cd's or vinyl and you don't have to pay. You don't even have to pay when you download tracks and play them from the Original drive you dowloaded the tracks on; but move them to another laptop ot external drive, or digitise your vinyl and/or cd's collection and you have to get a dj license, which will set you back about 230€/year.

    I never thought about it that way, but when the writer stated it's discrimination of the digital dj, and only the digital dj, as vinyl and cd dj's don't have to pay, I found the dj license even more ridiculous and upsetting than before. It's a rule they made up because the law isn't up to date with what's happening in the world today, especially concerning the internet. But hey, there's no real choice. Or you don't pay and take the (small) risk you get busted, or you play it by the book and hope you get enough gigs to pay back for all the expenses you make.

  13. masHondo says:

    No wonder why increasingly more Dj's produce. To own their own sets...

    • Christian Yates says:

      Yep, this is the reason I want to start producing properly, would be awesome to rock a club with a two hour set of all your own tracks.

  14. Benjamin Henry says:

    I just got started as a wedding/event DJ in November in the US. The whole music licensing thing is just horribly confusing on all fronts. Even when you think you're doing it right you're probably violating something. In most cases, you're right the event center holds a license to the big companies (ASCAP and the like), but what about mom and pop Bed and Breakfasts? I've done a couple of those and I'm not entirely sure they know they're supposed to have those licenses to allow weddding DJ's to play. Then there's my music itself. I've purchased my core set of tracks needed for DJing weddings. As you mentioned not even beatport tracks are licensed for public use (and at $2.49 a track...that company is criminal to begin with). I also signed up for Pulselocker through the Serato player which IS licensed for public performance. At this point, I feel like I've done my fair share to make sure the musicians who create the music are getting paid and if they want to try to prosecute....let's see who a jury would find for. Big bad record labels...or little guy who purchased music legally and did everything in his power to make sure it was up and up. If all the record labels would get together under one umbrella and create one damn license (or better yet one damn program with EVERY song on it) this issue would resolve itself. It may result in higher cost to the DJ but at least it would be clear. Unfortunately, that would mean our prices would rise, but hey...in this world whose aren't? These greedy, unwavering companies only have themselves to blame for the world of pirating that's erupted as a result of all these ridiculous policies. Create a reasonable profit system and a reasonable way for professionals to access said system and the problem would all but disappear.

    • Christian Yates says:

      I think that you have done it right. Do everything in your power to be as above board as possible and be prepared to take the hit and defend yourself if the time comes.

  15. John Carter says:

    Greed no wonder so many people buy and perform illegal they know that lot of DJs now use digital.
    I wont be buying any more music to help support these companies.

    • John Carter says:

      Just like internet radio where the licence is made so complex and expensive,
      but in a way by them being so greedy they are most likely making less money than they would if it was more fair as more would want to pay, rather than be illegal.

  16. Rick Addy says:

    Phil, in Canada there are several layers of licensing where some is covered by venues and some by DJ's. This link will take you to the Connect Music site where they have listed all the various licensing and who they are for. As a member for the Canadian Disc Jockey Association and a Chapter president, we are all for artists, writers and publishers getting their $'s. What is lost often in the industry is that purchasing music even from a legal source does not give an individual the right to sample, remix or otherwise steal a piece of song without proper rights.
    Here is that link: http://connectmusic.ca/licensing.aspx
    Rick Addy

  17. Rick Dawson says:

    so... how does this fit with live online streaming and or the likes of Mixcloud?

    I know that chew.tv (where I Stream to) have the legal side of things properly covered.
    and Mixcloud have that covered too.

    does it make it legal dfor a DJ to use the services, or is it just making it legal for the service to have the music through their servers?

  18. Ant Cruze says:

    In australia, ARIA/PPCA charge around $800/year for this "privelidge". As an international dj, i dont believe its fair for there to be different standards in different countries, hence the reason why i only play with bands there and with original content. I feel sorry for the mobile and club dj's there, working their butts off and still having to pay for their music. If they were being serviced for free by the copyright owners/labels/majors...then its possible that a fee would be more financially justifiable (for the delivery of content).

  19. In the UK, a licence must be obtained from the Phonographic Performance Limited (PPL), or one of its dubbing operators, and from the Mechanical-Copyright Protection Society (MCPS).[4] In 2006, The PPL created a licence that allowed a DJ to use up to 20,000 songs and keep backup copies of these on a separate hard drive.[5] The licence did not allow the recording of live DJ mixes, or burning music on to a cd. Furthermore, editing or altering of the original recording was not permitted. The PPL licence had to be renewed yearly, and cost £200 plus value added tax (VAT) per year. PPL did not announce how the use of the digital DJ licensing was going to be enforced or supervised, other than by advertising the need for the licence and discouraging venues from hiring unlicensed DJs, under threat of "trouble with the law".[6] In addition to this, the DJ also needed to acquire a separate licence from the MCPS.

    In 2008, PPL and MCPS created a joined licence, named ProDub licence, which covers the licensing for both organisations. The new licensing scheme is tiered: tier 1 costing £250 including VAT, and allowing the copying of up to 5,000 songs, up to tier 4 which costs £400 including VAT and allows the copying of up to 20,000 songs. This licensing system differs from the previous one in that it's not a form of leasing, and the songs copied under this licence may be kept indefinitely. Furthermore, if the whole quota is not used, the remaining amount may be transferred to the next year, provided the licence is renewed.[1] This licence also allows a backup to be kept, but does not permit the copying of music on to a cd-r, only allowing copies to hard drives of computers or other digital audio players. Also, it is required for the DJ to own the original media, and copies made from cds borrowed from a library or another source are not allowed. The licensors keep a database searchable by surname to allow venues and other organisers to verify that their performers comply with the appropriate copyright laws.[2] It should however be noted that DJs playing original cds and vinyls are legally allowed to do so without any licences on their part, and are not listed in the database. MCPS does not require the licensees to report the songs used, but they are required to keep some form of a record of the copies made, that may be requested by the MCPS to be sent to them and/or allow them to verify the records. This form of licensing is similar to the previous model in the sense that it does not allow live DJ mixes to be recorded.

    By itself the new licensing model does not allow the copying of karaoke tracks that include on-screen lyrics, but for an additional fee the coverage is extendable to include such tracks. The licence also only allows music to be copied in the UK, and if the music is copied in any other country, the DJ needs to acquire permission from the copyright holders, or acquire a similar licence from that country's copyright organisation(s). Music copied in the UK can however be played in any country within the European Economic Area without the need for additional licences or permissions.

    Certainly brings a more serious tone to the tables. I guess one point would be the financial level of commitment here would be helpful to the person booking the DJ.

  20. Digital DJs not allowed to remix (ie the controllerist) publicly!! I think that is a little too power hungry and borderline megalomanic!

  21. MrIddz68 says:

    Giving this some serious thought. A digital DJ cannot remix live which is 90℅ of a controllers purpose. Surely the big companies whom make these machines must be against such an silly requesite. To be honest this feels downright oppressive to me and really should be fought against!

    • The reason I call this stuff out (broadly, I know the exact rules and regulations vary from licence to licence, country to country) is that these are grey areas, so even if a DJ buys the licence, he or she can't be sure they're not breaking the law. the fact that nobody seems to police these things adds another layer of uncertainty, and reinforces that this stuff is often unworkable.

  22. Mathew England says:

    Some great info and comments here.
    I'm making a return to DJ'ing after several years off but this time just starting a small mobile business rather than doing the clubs. I've spent several hundred £ on digital music over the last few weeks and have made the move to buy a licence today - which has ultimately brought me here.

    This grey area of downloaded tracks is a joke. I simply can't find a straight answer on which license I should be buying and I get the impression I need to get the ProDub license then buy the hard copies of everything I've already bought digitally to make it all legit.

    I can understand requiring hard copies of rips because they could be shared repeatedly from a single copy but surely the ProDub licence isnt relevant to digital downloads and would therefore require a different type of licence.

    Confusing stuff.
    If needs be I'll buy hard copies as a legal-backup and pay the ProDub fees but there is a large part of me that can't help but think that unless the licensing companies create a clear licence for the case of digital downloads they can't enforce anything. There has to be clear rules in place before anyone can say you have broken them surely.

    If owning a CD or record is proof of ownership and no licence is required to play hard copies then it has to be the same if you have receipts of purchase of digital music. Proof of ownership is proof of ownership. Unless I'm missing something? I'll be asking a few questions and researching this to see if I can get a bottom-line answer from the relevant people and will post my findings here but if anyone else can shed any light on digital downloads in the meantime I'd love to be privy to such info.

  23. Robert Higgins says:

    Although the licensing laws are NOT perfect I would welcome a licensing law in the USA to help start to weed out all the DJs that don't buy their music. The laws should be expanded to make all the DJ recipients PROVE that they buy ALL their music from licensed sources. Most of the DJs I see locally have stolen the vast majority of their music libraries if not ALL of it. And even with the CD or Vinyl copy (which 95% of my library is on) I would still be glad to pay for a license for public performance. The laws need to be updated and teeth put in the legislation for serious penalties for violators and a surcharge of the fines going to law enforcement, the local governments etc (maybe earmarking them for music education purposes) to make it worthwhile for them to actually enforce the laws vigourously

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