Music to podcast by: what you can/not use in your productions

The Graduate Institute has a very active podcast scene, and it is sometimes hard to know which external materials you can or cannot include in your episodes. Here is a brief explainer based on the work of Céline Vilmen, our law librarian and copyright specialist.

The Law and exceptions

The first thing to know is whether you can use any copyrighted music in your podcasts, and you might have a few misconceptions about this.

Which copyright law applies?

If you intend on broadcasting your podcast on the Internet, you are subject to copyright laws in all the countries where your work is available and listened to. Respecting Swiss law is not sufficient, and you should be extremely careful when using external content.

Does the pedagogical exception apply for podcasts?

Under Swiss law, teachers can integrate pieces of protected works in their recordings and let their students listen to them in class, as long as they mention the author and source of the work.

But this is most likely not your situation: podcasts are streamed publicly on the Internet, through RSS feeds or hosting platforms. Being a teacher or a researcher does not in itself grant you any specific rights or exceptions, especially when broadcasting to other countries.

What about exceptions for citations?

Under Swiss law, you can use a few seconds of a protected work to comment on it, reference it, or illustrate a point about it. This exception does not mean you can include protected music in your podcast just because it sounds good.

In addition, this exception does not necessarily exist in other countries, and you certainly should avoid using any music rather than counting on exceptions, unless it was released with an appropriate open license.

Open licenses for music

The good news is that there are multiple websites specialising in open-license music, which generally use Creative Commons licenses. You should understand what they mean before you use any of them in your own productions.

CC content you can use freely in your podcast

  • CC0 public domain: you can do anything you want with this work.
  • CC BY: you can use the work as you want, as long as the original author is properly credited. This condition actually applies to all CC licences except CC0 – and honestly you probably should credit them anyway.

CC content you should carefully consider first

  • CC BY-NC: you cannot make commercial usage of the work (i.e. sell it or distribute it with advertisements). If you are adapting it creating a derived work (such as a podcast episode), this means your podcast episode cannot feature paid advertisements, for example.
  • CC BY-SA: you can use and adapt the work as you wish as long as you credit the original author… but the resulting work (your podcast episode) must be released under the same license. This might not be something you want to do.
  • CC BY-NC-SA: includes the obligations and limitations of all the previously mentioned licenses. You cannot make commercial usage of the work, and your resulting work must be released under the same license, also excluding commercial usage.
  • CC BY-ND: you may redistribute the work as you want, but it can not be modified or used for a derivative work. This means that you can include that music piece in your podcast, but not edit or remix it in any way.
  • CC BY-NC-ND: merges the obligations and limitations of ND with NC.

Other (non-CC) licenses

Some music collections or websites grant specific licenses that you should read carefully and understand. Some might be similar to CCs or even more open, but others might not always be compatible with the use you have in mind. For example, Bensound’s “Free license with attribution” is much more restrictive than CC BY, and actually forbids usage in podcasts.


So don’t forget to give credit where credit is due, and be careful not to include any content that you do not have an appropriate license for!

As usual, this post is information and not legal advice. For more information, please check out Céline’s page on copyright law applied to podcasts (in French). You can also download it as a PDF document: English version; French version (original).

The Creative Commons Wiki also has an article on podcasting.

Cover picture (cropped): Sound wave, by CSTRSK (Pixabay License)

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