The Distros Don’t Want Your Creative Commons Music*


Distros Article Image

The Plot

Many of the online music distribution companies: CD Baby, DistroKid, OneRPM, MondoTunes, TuneCore etc., are either rejecting, or at least not entirely happy about accepting, audio content that has been released under a Creative Commons (CC) licence, and are not accepting it into their distribution with YouTube’s Content ID system.

As a musician who has gained some exposure from releasing material under a CC licence, this is a disappointing and worrying trend, since YouTube advertising revenue (let’s call it YTAR from now) is about the only way I’ve managed to make a tiny bit of income from my music.


The History

For a very quick recap on the terms here, Creative Commons licences are a set of licences that give authors, composers etc. the ability to let other people use their material for free, in exchange for those people crediting them and, ideally, linking back to them. This is so that the author/composer’s work gets used and people get to know who they are. There is obviously a lot more to it than that, but this is the general idea.

Content ID is YouTube’s way of automatically recognising a piece of copyrighted material in a video and thus allow the owners of that material to decide what to do about it (i.e. ban it or collect money from it etc.).

My Story

In today’s world, where there is so much content out there that it is hard to get noticed or heard, the Commons is a useful framework in that it allows your work to get used, and hopefully your name noticed. By putting my music on sites like the FMA (Free Music Archive – a place to share Commons audio), it has allowed me to get some small level of exposure that I might not otherwise have had.

Of course, having got some exposure, it is nice to be able to get some income back from it, and to date, YTAR has proved the only bit of meaningful income (above the usual 0.0002 pence one seems to get from the likes Spotify etc.), that I have managed to achieve.

The Evidence

Having uploaded new material to the FMA, I wanted to check with online music distributors that I’d be able to “monetise” that material via their various YTAR collection services, here’s some of the answers I got:



Due to the potential for copyright infringement concerns with public domain/creative commons releases, DistroKid does not currently distribute music in the public domain/creative commons, for your own protection, as well as ours.


CD Baby:

You would be welcome to upload, release, and distribute this music through CD Baby, but please do not opt it in to our Sync Licensing/YouTube video monetization service. Only your own 100% completely original, non-Creative Commons compositions are eligible for our Sync Licensing service.


It’s ok if someone uses other content that has been released under a CC BY license in their own music, as long as proper credit is given (as per the Creative Commons license). We can distribute this music. However, it will not be submitted into the YouTube Content ID system.


We can monetize audio on YouTube but not under Creative Commons licence.




At this time, we are not accepting public domain/creative common projects. We wish we could accommodate you request but retailers are beginning to reject these types of releases due to having to police potentially copyrighted material.


TuneCore did not expressly forbid the uploading of CC content nor say that it wouldn’t be eligible for YTAR , however, their Terms of Service for YouTube revenue say this:


For the avoidance of doubt, YouTube Recordings incorporating the following types of content are not eligible for inclusion in YouTube Monetization (each, an “Ineligible Recording”): …. (ii) content released under Creative Commons or similar free/open licenses; ….

Additionally there didn’t seem to be any distinction made between the type of CC licence the music was licenced under. For example it is possible to licence content under a “CC-BY-NC” variant, which means the content can be used by the licensee, but not commercially (NC = Non Commercial). This licence should remove any conflict between the creator and user, since the user cannot claim any YTAR under the terms of this licence anyway. However, this question was either ignored or as OneRPM put it:

Unfortunately no, we won’t distribute any music available via CC license for YouTube Content ID.

The Plot Thickens

However, this is not the end of the story, because, saying you don’t accept CC material is one thing, and actually not accepting it is another. This is because there is no reliable way to ascertain if anything has actually been released under a CC licence or not.

There is no central database of CC licenced works, only that the licensor marks their work (say on their download page) with the appropriate licence. And it’s unlikely that the distros are going to go researching into every submitted track to see if it’s in the Commons. I put this to CD Baby who said:

That being said, we do not have any way to block or even know if content is in Creative Commons. But if it is opted in and we receive any complaints or are notified of any problems, we will opt the content that is causing the issue out of our Sync service.

So basically they, and I suspect, all the other distros will accept CC material because it’s too hard for them not to, but they will bin it if there is a problem and have indemnified themselves from doing this in their terms and conditions.

But Why?

So why are the distros so keen to avoid CC material? It seems odd, since outwardly, folks like CD Baby seem to be espousing the merits of the Commons, in articles like this where they say things like:

If you’re not part of it, you’re losing out on opportunities to make new fans, promote and share your music and, perhaps most importantly, leaving a lasting imprint.

Even YouTube themselves don’t seem to be against it as this support article makes clear, in which they say:

You can monetize royalty-free or Creative Commons content if the license agreement grants you rights to use it commercially.

Well, who knows, is there a growing undertow against this new paradigm of sharing from those whose vested interests lie in the established copyright system (please note I am not against copyright per se)? But why would the distros want to turn away content from which they might profit?

I’m not sure, but my hunch is that, with so much changing in the current “digital revolution”, and so many unknowns, the distros are trying to play it safe, and in some ways trying to hedge their bets. And I think frankly, they don’t want the hassle when things go wrong. As CD Baby told me:

Our experience is that it causes too much confusion and frustration, and the way we see it, once you offer your content to be used royalty-free, you are no longer entitled to monetize that content if/when someone else uses it.

This last point from CD Baby that “you are no longer entitled to monetize that content if/when someone else uses it.“, I would take issue with and I think is a bit of a cop-out. Since, A) You could offer the content on a non-commercial basis as mention above and, B) Even if the composer/author licenced their material commercially, this surely does not preclude themselves using it commercially, as the Creative Commons themselves told me regarding CC licenced material:

You always own the rights to your own work and can enter into any agreement you wish with your work.

So What?

So what next and where is all leading? Well, personally I think it would be a shame for CC material to be blocked or marginalised. I think the Commons has been great at allowing the use of material, under certain restrictions, where otherwise it might have remained undiscovered. And if the creators of such material are not able to profit from it, then they will likely lack the motivation to go on creating it, nor have the time to,  due to having to do other jobs to support themselves.

I think YouTube could go a long way to resolving this problem, since their payment system makes it very difficult to share the income from a video between the music creator and video maker. It’s a very blunt instrument where it usually only awards the ad revenue to the music licence holder and not the video maker. This is a big cause of the conflict between users of CC music and it’s creators, where both are trying to get their share of the ad revenue. To date YouTube have not been very forthcoming on my enquiries into this, but that is a subject for another article.

I will add that TuneCore have so far been very helpful and accommodating in allowing me to put up my CC audio and also revoking their claims on a case by case basis, where it might have conflicted with a user who I felt deserved to keep the ad revenue. However whether the other distros will follow suit, and whether this approach from TC will be sustainable, is another matter.

To Do

In short, the people that hold the keys to the distribution of content – YouTube (i.e. Google) etc.- need to give the creators of that content the tools to be able to get their share of revenue from it in a fair and transparent way. In this way the distros will hopefully be more open to accepting CC material, in the knowledge that it is less likely to cause conflict. Otherwise the whole system is in jeopardy.

Meanwhile, be aware there may be problems with CC material, certainly in relation to YTAR. We’ll have to see what the future brings, but I hope it’s one that benefits everybody.

20 Responses

  1. I was on the other end of the deal when AdRev made a claim against Creative Content licensed music in my video. The Content ID claim was not issued by the author/composer, because I have subsequently been in contact with him. As such AdRev is probably complicit, or at least supportive of any random person uploading Creative Commons (or even copyrighted) content and claiming as their own. I suspect they milk the system to take their share of the advertising revenue – until they are caught out.

    YouTube does not intervene in disputes, and doesn’t even take action when companies like AdRev do the wrong thing.

  2. Hi Jelsonic,

    I only recently discovered the wealth of good music available under Creative Commons and while seeking out more I discovered your music on a Youtube channel “Free Music Channel”. You have a great selection, well written and produced, I will certainly use it if I ever find the time to create a channel myself. Then I read this blog and was disappointed (but not surprised) to see that using CC and making money from commercial use is being discouraged by the distributors. However, I notice this “Free Music Channel” is monetized so someone is making money on your work. I see what you wrote in your blog and I agree with it completely. All the same I see other CC artists in the Youtube Audio Library like Kevin McLeod and Chris Zabriskie. How did they manage this, did they apply for Content ID independently? I was wondering could you apply for a Content ID yourself?

    Anyway keep making good CC content!



    1. Hi Philip, thanks for your comment. Currently you need to register with Content ID through a distributor though I think you can apply independently but not sure what their criteria is.. I do licence through a distributor so maybe that’s what you saw.

  3. Thanks! Really interesting article, very illuminating…I hope the DSPs are changing their minds about it. Going to try the CC approach with our band Banglist and see how it goes.

  4. I wonder if CC By can be distributed unlimitedly. For instance, Joe downloaded a piece of music (CC By) and uploaded to YT as “no copyright music”; hence Jane downloaded that piece of music from Joe’s channel and uses as “no copyright music” again.

    1. Jane could redistribute the music again but only under the same terms as the original licence, in this case CC-BY, and she would need to credit the original creator as well.

  5. My Creative Commons channel has 235k subs and I’ve been lucky to have some amazing artists to promote and it has been great.
    There are some issues with this article. If someone uploads a track even with a slight Creative Commons sample in it it has a decent probability of dinging all of the other creators who are using that song with content id. That hurts the creator, the publisher and musicians reputation. No one wants their ads paying someone else. I had to register an LLC in Florida and set up the legal framework to better protect the music I release due to so many scammers and honestly its also a lot of naive musicians aggressively sampling cc music and trying to monetize it.

    Artists CAN profit off their music in Creative Commons, just not by means of Adsense. This is a major part of the contracts I use.

    The artist Lakey Inspired for example. My channel was the first to bring him into the spotlight and his channel has over 20-30m views and about 250k subs. He is doing pretty well now!

    The way an artist profits on yt publishing under a cc license is simple. Exposure and the chance to build your own platform/brand. I recently started publishing for a new artist and he was quickly featured on reddit rpan and presto he gained 50k followers on Spotify.

    I truly love what I do, I get to help talented musicians get heard by content creators who need good music. So basically it’s helping everyone and helps me in the process. As a Creative Commons publisher / record label my main responsibility is protecting the copyright of the tracks I hold the rights to.

    I have had and beat hundreds of false claims. Mark Stead above is on to something.. Check this out.
    to see how PRO’s feel about cc music as well

    ASCAP can eat a fat one. So can BMI and I have been in communication back and fourth for many months with TuneCore, DistroKid, CDBAby and the only one who has been nice to deal with has been Audiam. Audiam actually seems to care and responds quickly.

    I despise the companies making it so easy for people to steal from my channel and subscribers. They know their music is stolen but take months to resolve anything. If I had an extra hundred grand or so laying around I’d start a class action lawsuit against them because it would probably be winnable if it weren’t for their legal defense budgets.

    I have one nail in the coffin up my sleeve to stop the thieves from stealing my music I choose to share.

    I am applying for direct access to the content id system on behalf of my record label to have to power to input my own tracks in the same way artlist and epidemic sound do.

    At that point I will begin inputing my new music into content id and it will become impossible for others to fake claim on YouTube because I will already hold the track in the system.

    Then I will release the music not under Creative Commons anymore but I’ll simply make it free.
    I figure artlist and epidemic sounds are great because they give you certainty you won’t get a strike (until they strike you for not paying your subscription haha). Larger channels can’t afford to have false claims. When I can offer music equally as safe but for free then I will be where I want to be on YouTube. That is displacing the greedy people from the music industry and hopefully spreading joy positivity and truly free and safe to use music!

    Anyways i’m rambling, if you read I appreciate it! Best wishes!!!

    1. Hi Sully, thanks for your comment. I take your point about registered CC tracks eating up Adsense revenue, I would much prefer that there were tools in YouTube to enable creators the ability to share the ad revenue and have been asking about this, however currently for me this seems to be the only way of monetising my tracks in any meaningful way. I would be interested to hear how you are making income from the music you sign up. Thanks!

  6. With my first release on the FMA I did kind of scam a lot of users. At least it felt that way: Music was published with CC-BY-SA license and many people used it on YouTube. Later I put it via distribution to the stores and such, unaware the implications regarding YouTube ContentID. Well, suddenly I made surprisingly much money. Some people called me out for being a scammer and I felt I even deserved that.
    The thing is: None of this is very intuitive. Back then I couldn’t even predict what it meant, to distribute to Youtube. As well as no user of the music would know what rights he has with all those CC license. I mean, it’s not illegal for me, to profit from my own music on YT. It’s just not what everyone expected. The same thing is with NC: Nobody knows what exactly defines a commercial use. Ad revenue from YouTube? Probably. Playing the music on a website, that displays some small ad banner? Well, probably too. Or not? Who knows. So I think the problem starts with the reliability of CC. We are missing that database you mentioned. And the support of the big players like Google, FB and so on. Next thing, that will blow up, will probably be podcasts.
    I solved my problem with releasing with recordJet, where they allow me to not publish to YouTube. Will see, how long that keeps working.
    Thanks for your post. Nice to know I am not alone with those kind of problems 🙂

    1. Hi Thomas

      Thanks for your comment. I see your point and I’ve had exactly the same issue of feeling like a scammer or being accused of being a scammer, but actually I don’t think you or we are. Sure you’ve made your music available for use but that doesn’t preclude yourself from using it right? After all people could use it in all sorts of ways like in a show or on a personal website. So long as you’re upfront that you register it with YT etc. Ideally of course you’d register it before you distribute it on CC, which is what I do now. You also have the option of whitelisting a video, which I’ve done on a case by case basis, where you can ask your distro to not collect ad revenue for a particular video thus allowing the video creator to get it. Ideally I’d like to see a system where you can allocate some of the ad revenue to a third party so it’s a win win for everyone. I want to look into this and maybe do a post of what I find out.

      1. Thanks for approving my comment. Did not realize, I was replying to a 3-year old post, it just came along my twitter feed and sounded pretty current to me 😉

        Yeah, between my first comment and today my perspective has changed again, because my music got kind of pirate-distributed to YT and is now used to steal ad revenue from people who used my tracks in good faith – like basically everyone else here in the comments experienced it. It’s kind of amazing that people find a way to pirate music, that is actually free. Mind blown.

        Anyway: You write “You also have the option of whitelisting a video, which I’ve done on a case by case basis..” That sounds like a solution for my problems. But where can you do that? Is TuneCore offering that to you? In my experience with my first distribution, they were really unhappy about people disputing their claims on YT.

  7. I feel very identified with this article. My Creative Commons music is constantly plagiarized and registered without permission in Content ID as copyrighted music, managing to silence the videos of many of my users and preventing YouTubers from monetizing their content. All this makes you feel powerless. I was interviewed for my most recent case of plagiarizing my music here:
    And I’m currently trying to find a solution. Something similar to what you do with TuneCore whitelisting some videos, but in reverse: allowing everyone to use my music to monetize its content (since it’s not CC-NC) but having the power to decide if I want to blacklist a video because my music can’t be monetized as music playlists.

    In short, thank you for your article! Hopefully, YouTube and other platforms will allow us to add Creative Commons music in the future to avoid all these issues.

  8. Honestly I agree with the companies refusing to accept Creative Commons content in the sense that content which is licensed under Creative Commons — specifically an attribution only license isn’t suitable to be “marketed” under things like the Free Music Archive and targeted towards content creators.

    It’s a bait and switch tactic which causes new creators to suddenly get Copyright claims by some licensing house and feel mislead when they were told on sites like FMA that they only need to attribute and provide a link to the original artist.

    In those cases a non-commercial Creative Commons clause would make more sense since you’re effectively prohibiting someone from monetizing the content, and causing a copyright claim against them when they thought it was in the clear, it would at least be more honest with your intentions.

    Ultimately, for a small vlogger like my wife who has 2 subscribers on YouTube who thought she did due diligence by researching CC licenses, being careful about what songs so she didn’t run afoul of them, and getting hit with a copyright strike cause of this bait and switch marketing, it’s quite infuriating.

    1. I have tried to address this by making all new works CC-BY-NC (non-commercial), as you suggest, though this is a shame in some ways as I have no objection to commercial use, but if it helps stopping frustration with YouTube down the line then it should be done. I have also added a CC+ licence to allow use of works in YT but with the caveat that they can’t be monetised if and until there is a shared revenue mechanism.

  9. I’m sorry, but a CC license is supposed to be for life. Do you realize the grief it causes people when they try to do the right thing and they’re hit by a copyright claim? Chances are, they either have to redo THEIR work or let you monetize THEIR work. They can’t monetize their own work. In my opinion it is a swindle. I’m of the opinion if someone is going to monetize my work for using their music in the background, its going to be Queen, Fleetwood Mac, or Pink Floyd. Those might actually bring traffic to the video. But usually CC music in the background is incidental to the work. Usually its chosen by its length first, its tempo second, and its tone third. I found this site by searching “Creative Commons license scam.” I writing this while I’m remixing an afternoons work because the CC licensed tune I use in it triggered a copyright claim. But as always, I made note of the author and will avoid their work like the plague.

    1. Yes I understand your frustration here. I have been in touch with licensing people about this, with a view that revenue can be shared with all contributing parties but they don’t seem interested most likely as it’s extra work and nothing in it for them. The problem is that creators of CC content want to be able to monetise their work the same as users of their content do. You can also contact the creator of the CC soundtrack and ask them to whitelist your work so that you can collect the revenue on it, I have done that for some users myself.

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