copyright issues in songwriting

Using Copyright-Protected Music In Your Own Music: How To Do It

I’m occasionally contacted by songwriters with questions surrounding the issue of copyright. Probably the most common question I’m asked is if there is any way to use part of another pre-existing song as a starting point for a new one.

If you’re interested in using a bit of recognizable lyric or a short snippet of melody, the answer is usually: there’s no way to take a part of another song without permission. You can of course take one word from a song that’s copyright-protected, because no one owns a copyright on a single word.


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Once you get interested in combinations of words that you’ve seen in other songs, it becomes very tricky. And if you’re contemplating taking short bits of melody from another song that you like, you simply can’t do it without the permission of the copyright holder.

And there’s one other potential copyright infringement issue that is very much a slippery-slope: copying the basic feel of another song. We learned this lesson by following the plight of singer-songwriters RobinThicke and Pharrell Williams, whose song “Blurred Lines” was seen to have been a plagiarizing of Marvin Gaye’s song “Got to Give It Up.”

What the judge determined in that case was that there were just too many similarities between the two songs. So that even though “Blurred Lines” didn’t copy the melody or lyrics, it did copy many other elements: tempo, instrumentational choices, and basic sound and feel. Any of these on their own would not have caused a plagiarism charge, but taken together they crossed over the line.

The Only Two Ways to Use Copyright-Protected Music

There are only two legal ways to use copyright-protected music in your own songs (or videos, or podcasts for that matter):

  1. obtain permission from the copyright holder of the song you’re interested in.
  2. purchase a licence from a stock audio (music and sound effects) service.

Using this music in the way the service stipulates ensures that you won’t be hauled up for plagiarism charges. But be sure to read the user agreement carefully: you may be allowed to use the music in your podcast, but not necessarily as part of a new song.

Regarding your own songs, if you see that someone has used your music, even just one second, in any way — as background for their video, as part of someone else’s song, or in any other way — you have a case against that person or group.

There’s a great article on the “Learning Solutions” website, written by design consultant Jeff D’Anza — “Using Copyrighted Music and Media in Your Podcast” — and it describes some common myths around the issue of copyright. (You’ll learn that no, there is no “fair use” clause in the copyright law that allows you to use a small amount of music in your own song, podcast or video.)

That article was written in 2018, but we can assume the rules haven’t changed since then. And though the article pertains specifically to podcasting, you can assume that the rules apply to any use of any copyright-protected music.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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