August 27, 2021

When you’re first starting out your display, you may wonder how it’s even legal to play recorded music in your display. In this video, I summarize my research, and share with you my findings. Remember, I am not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice!

One of the biggest questions that comes up when folks are thinking about starting a Christmas light display is music and working it in with your show. You may be curious about the legalities of it all, so to save you time, hassle, and money here is all you need to know!

Music and Your Display

Come Christmas time you can stroll around and see plainly that people everywhere have light displays going full force on homes and businesses with music to go along with it. So, how is this legal?

In any other avenue, whether it be radio, a store, or restaurant, if you play someone else’s recorded music you are responsible for paying the artist a small royalty. Ultimately this is quite reasonable because this music was the hard work of the artist and as with any other job, they are entitled to compensation for their work.

Licensing Requirements

If you are playing music on the radio and you are playing it in some sort of public place the licensing requirements change from if you were simply playing the music for personal use.

You may know that if you are using a paid subscription platform such as Spotify or Pandora that the artist makes a small fraction of income for each song that you purchase. For personal use, you are legally good to go. This changes if your use of the music changes.

The Laws You Need To Know

There is a couple aspects to the laws and precedents that are good to know when you are considering incorporating music into your display.

Fair Use

The first concept to be aware of is a concept called Fair Use. Fair use is a legal aspect that covers any time when someone uses a tiny clip of music, a photo, or a screenshot or the like. What this basically says is that if you transform the original work, rendering it into something new, then you can effectively use it without issue.

Generally when it comes to lighting, you are not actually changing the music into anything new. So how is it legal? The general consensus is that as long as your Christmas light display is non-commercial, and not tied to a business or profit in any way, then you are generally safe to use the music under the ‘personal license’ that comes along with purchasing the music.

Determining If Your Display Fits The Legalities

The next question that arises is how to determine whether your display is purely personal and therefore legally covered or if you need to move forward with extra licensing.

Commercial Realm

There are a couple things to be aware of that could possibly push you into the ‘commercial realm’ of displays and therefore require you to get extra licensing to make sure your display is on the up and up legally.

The first determination is plain and simple: do you accept money from people, even if it is just to help further your display? If you find that you do indeed accept money personally for your display on any level, including sponsorship, then you fall into the category of commercial.

How To Obtain Your Licensing

If you fall into this category then you will need further licensing to be able to legally use you music with your display. The way to get your licensing is to go through BMI, the writer’s unions, and agencies that regulate this. You can easily buy performance licenses to suit your needs. The requirements and cost may vary depending on what exactly you are doing with your display, but once you get it handled, you can stress no more about legalities and just have fun with presenting your display.

Accepting Donations

If you accept donations for a third party such as a non-profit without keeping donations for yourself then this is a different matter legally. In such a case, you are generally good to go without having to jump through extra licensing hoops.

They grey area with this where you would most likely need a license in order to operate your display when you enter into the ‘commercial’ space, such as having some or all of the donations taken be meant for furthering your personal display or covering costs of some sort.


The biggest key when putting music to your show to avoid hassle is to be very clear on whether or not you are collecting money for it. If you are simply putting on a show for the enjoyment of friends and neighbors without any profit, then you are set to celebrate and can generally be secure in knowing that you will not get sued, as in that case there is nothing to sue for.

Once your show tiptoes into the money making arena of any kind, it’s best to just make sure you are legally covered and take the appropriate steps for licensing. This will help to prevent any hassles or unnecessary stress and will ensure that you can enjoy spreading holiday cheer to the fullest.

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