What Are the Guidelines for Using a Portion of a Song Without Permission?

Question

I am creating amateur animation for my website. I would like to use a portion of an instrumental song that I found online as background music to the animation. Tracking down the copyright holders of that song to ask for permission would be time-consuming and possibly expensive. This project is just for fun, and will not be sold or used to make a profit.

I have heard that a certain amount of a song can be used in this manner without requiring permission. Is this true? If so, what are the guidelines for using this copyrighted material?

Answer

You want to make a creative Web project, but are concerned about the copyright implications. You are wise to be concerned. Musicians are generally cautious about ensuring that their intellectual property rights are not infringed upon. But tracking down the rights holders can be difficult or mired in bureaucratic requirements.

Songs typically have two copyrights, for:

  • the underlying song (usually owned by the artist), and
  • the recording of that song (usually owned by the recording company).

It is possible that the copyright holders refuses to give you permission, or never responds to your inquiries. Worse, the owner may ask you to pay thousands of dollars. Do you need permission for your project, or can you proceed without it?

First, not all music is protected by copyright. Music recorded before 1922 is generally in the public domain, meaning that you can use it as background to your animation without worrying about copyright holders. Many musical works created between 1923 and 1963 might also have fallen into the public domain, if the copyright owners failed to renew their copyrights (which you can check with the U.S. Copyright Office).

Second, even if the song you want to use with your animation is not in the public domain, your use might qualify as fair use. Fair use is a defense to copyright infringement. Courts will consider four factors to determine whether a person’s use of the copyrighted work—in your case, a song—qualifies as fair use: (1) the purpose and character of the use, for example if your project is for profit; (2) the nature of the copyrighted work, for instance, if the song is a famous Billboard hit or an academic piece of music; (3) the amount of the copyrighted work that you used in your project, and (4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

Most of these factors probably weigh in your favor. Specifically, you are not selling the animation with the song to make a profit, nor are you likely going to affect the market for the copyrighted song. Customers looking for that song would not simply go to your website and watch your animation; they would still buy the original CD.

The most decisive factor, however, might be how much of the song you use. Do you allow the entire song to play in the background of your animation? Or is it merely a ten-second refrain?

Unfortunately, there are no fixed standards as to how much of a song you can use without infringing the song owner's copyright.

Using the song without permission is risky, but it is relatively unlikely that the owners would immediately sue you. More likely, their lawyers would send you a letter or email requesting that you stop using the material. If you obey and take the music down, the issue is usually over.

Of course, there is also the possibility that the song owners will never learn of your infringement. Most infringements are discovered when Web traffic increases, the infringement begins earning money, or the infringement is diverting music sales.

As you can see, the issue becomes somewhat riskier if you intend to sell your animation containing the sampled music. If you will profit from the sale of another person’s copyrighted work, there is a far greater likelihood that the copyright holder may decide to sue—particularly if you engage in large-scale sales over the Internet. In this situation, consider getting samples clearances from the original copyright holders to prevent disputes down the road.

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