Skip to main content

Music Copyright: OVERVIEW


Librarians are an initial step to providing copyright information in academic institutions, however, an attorney should be consulted for legal advice. 

Audio Recordings


Audio recordings have two copyrights that one must consider: one for the music that is recorded and one for the recording itself.  But while a symphony composed in 1910 is no longer protected by copyright, a recording of it made in 2010 still is.  In fact, EVERY audio recording in the United States is currently protected by copyright.  

In 1976, the federal government assigned a life-plus-70-years copyright term to all audio recordings made after February 15, 1972, and the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act set the copyright  for all pre-1972 recordings to expire in 2067.

Disputing the Percentage Rationale

For a long time, libraries upheld the idea of a percentage of a work that could be used and not seen as a violation of copyright. This is not a standard, some libraries have a standard of 10% and others have a 20% rule. However, this practice does not take into account the substantiality of the information used. 

In an attempt to illustrate this point links have been embedded to show highlight this point:

Being a Student Does Not Guarantee Free Use

What Is Fair Use?

In its most general sense, fair use is any copying of copyrighted material done for a limited and “transformative” purpose, such as to comment upon, criticize, or parody a copyrighted work. Such uses can be done without permission from the copyright owner. In other words, fair use is a defense against a claim of copyright infringement. If your use qualifies as a fair use, then it would not be considered an illegal infringement.

So what is a “transformative” use? If this definition seems ambiguous or vague, be aware that millions of dollars in legal fees have been spent attempting to define what qualifies as a fair use. There are no hard-and-fast rules, only general rules and varied court decisions, because the judges and lawmakers who created the fair use exception did not want to limit its definition. Like free speech, they wanted it to have an expansive meaning that could be open to interpretation.

Most fair use analysis falls into two categories: (1) commentary and criticism, or (2) parody.

The underlying rationale of this rule is that the public reaps benefits from your review, which is enhanced by including some of the copyrighted material

Edited from:

Copyright May Vary

Because boundaries to information have collapsed, countries have created their own copyright laws. ..."nearly 180 countries have ratified a treaty- the Berne Convention, administrated by the World Intellectual Property Organization." Because of this it is imperative to be informed that if you use music or resources from international artists you should look at the copyright laws in that particular region.

Great copyright case: Metallica vs. Napster :

Do I Need to Obtain Performance Rights?

Yes ... No...

If the screening is open to the public, such as showing to the community 

If the screening is in a public space where access is not restricted, such as in a public location

If persons attending are outside the normal circle of family and acquaintances, such as a club or organization, or showing a film for class but inviting others to attend

If privately viewing the film in your room with friends

If an instructor is showing the film to registered students in the course of teaching in the classroom 

If the library was purchased with public performance rights included

If copyright permission is obtained

Fair Use - Considerations for Film

The doctine of “fair use"  in U.S. Copyright law lists of the various purposes for which the reproduction of a particular work may be considered “fair,” such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research.

These uses are powerful, but not unrestricted.  The guidelines below will help explain the restrictions on fair use. Four factors must be considered when evaluating Fair Use. 

1. PURPOSE: The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;

  • The balance tips toward fair use when use is educational and non-profit, not commercial.
  • In addition, you will have a stronger case of fair use if you copy the material from a published work than an unpublished work. The scope of fair use is narrower for unpublished works because an author has the right to control the first public appearance of his or her expression.

2. NATURE: The nature of the copyrighted work;

  • The balance tips in favor of fair use for published, factual, nonfiction material; the reverse is true for unpublished*or highly creative work (music).

3. AMOUNT: The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole;

  • The balance tips in favor of fair use when a portion is small, not central to the work, and tailored to the exact educational purpose intended.
  • The less you take, the more likely that your copying will be excused as a fair use. However, even if you take a small portion of a work, your copying will not be a fair use if the portion taken is the “heart” of the work. In other words, you are more likely to run into problems if you take the most memorable aspect of a work. 

4. MARKET: The effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

  • The balance tips in favor of fair use when a legal copy is owned and use doesn't significantly impair sales.
  • Another important fair use factor is whether your use deprives the copyright owner of income or undermines a new or potential market. Depriving a copyright owner of income is very likely to trigger a lawsuit. This is true even if you are not competing directly with the original work. - 

See more at:



You might think that liberal arts students are the only ones who need to understand copyright law, but future photographers, animators, writers, and artists are actually the ones who might be suing students one day. As students rush to complete assignments, one of the last things on their minds is copyright law. The temptation to pluck resources from just about anywhere is often too great for some students, and others are simply unaware that rules and regulations protecting the use of art and content even exist. But the fact is that these rules do exist, and regardless of knowledge, students are expected to play by these rules. We’ve highlighted 15 copyright rules that are the most important to students, and also the most often ones misunderstood.

  1. Fair use This is a big one for student.s Copyrighted work, when used for educational purposes, is not subject to the usual copyright laws. Any educational use that takes copyrighted work used for parody, reporting, criticism, commentary, and research applies here. Of course, this use assumes that you’re merely sampling, and not using a copyrighted work in its entirety to make up your own work. You should also be careful to acquire the content legally, as in, not downloading it illegally. If you’re not sure your project qualifies under fair use, this checklist from Columbia University is a great resource to use.
  2. Copyright is automatic We so often see the little copyright symbol © that it’s easy to assume that if it’s not there, the work isn’t copyrighted. Everything that’s created is copyright protected and is owned by the artist that created it. Copyright protection is granted to works whether they’re registered or not
  3. Copyright lasts for a specific amount of time Public domain works exist because the timeline of copyright protection for those pieces has run out, or the author has forfeited property rights. For most works, copyright protection applies for the entirety of the author’s life, plus 70 years thereafter. In other words, the chances of your favorite new release becoming public domain in your own lifetime are slim to none. Of course, that means that classic works, especially classic novels, concerts, and artwork, are freely available for consumption and distribution in educational ventures and beyond.
  4. Federal government works are not protected by copyright Government materials fall under public domain. This applies to works created by employees of the federal government as part of their job. This includes many of the materials presented in the Library of Congress American Memory project.
  5. How much is too much? Fair use is a great tool for students, but work within its limits. When reproducing copyrighted material, there are certain guidelines you should follow in order to avoid crossing the line from “sampling” to “stealing.” In general, written work samples can be about 250 words long, where in each book or magazine, one chart, photo, or cartoon is within the limit. Selections from visual artists should be limited to five works, or a total of 10% of a collection. Three minutes of video works can appear in student presentations, and 30 seconds of musical works can be sampled per composition.
  6. Always check for guidelines on use Although students are granted a fairly broad use of copyrighted content, it’s always important to check out use guidelines. When using online information, always remember to not only credit your source, but research how the author wants to be credited
  7. If your project becomes commercial, you no longer have protection as a student If a work is for a specific course, you’re covered, but if you decide that you’d like to take it out of an educational context and market it commercially, you’re going to have to revise your copyrighted content strategy. Video samples that were once legal to use as part of a student project are now subject to copyright laws, and you’ll have to get permission for their use. Often, you will have to pay for them, or face the potential for lawsuits.
  8. If your project reaches a wider audience, you’re not protected either Fair use applies when projects are distributed on a small, educational scale. But if your project is available for consumption on, say, an unsecured website where anyone can access, share, or download it, your use is no longer exempt under fair use.
  9. The Internet is not public domain A common misconception that many students run into is the idea that anything they can find online is free, or in fancier terms, in the public domain. While there are certainly plenty of public domain works available online, it’s simply not the case for the entirety of the Internet. Writers may post samples of their latest books, photographers share teasers of their upcoming gallery project, and musicians even share singles, but that does not mean they’ve released these works into the public domain to be used without regard to copyright. Always keep in mind that unless the author expresses that you have the right to copy and distribute their work, you don’t. Of course, you may still have the right to sample these works if your project qualifies under fair use.