Can a Copyrighted Song Be Used in a Multimedia Presentation?

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A multimedia presentation can be the keystone in your sales efforts. It combines your natural charisma and salesmanship, video of your product in use, enough sales data to provide relevant information and a soundtrack to keep the presentation upbeat. There could be a problem with the presentation, though, if it violates copyright law. Copyrighted music can’t be included in any presentation without receiving permission from the song’s copyright holder.

Music Copyright 101

Any time a songwriter places a song in a fixed format, such as a recording or sheet music, U.S. copyright law automatically grants him copyright protections on the song, so virtually every recording you could add to a presentation is protected by copyright. While he can register the song with the U.S. Copyright Office to document his ownership, it’s not necessary. Copyright law grants the songwriter – or whoever holds the copyright – the sole right to reproduce or make derivative works. This extends to placing the work in television shows, movies and multimedia presentations, so using copyrighted material in your presentation runs afoul of copyright laws.

Fair Use

The concept of fair use and copyrighted material doesn’t apply to most multimedia presentations. United States copyright law allows the use of excerpts of pieces of recorded music as covered by the fair use doctrine, but only when used as part of criticism or critique, by a news agency, for bona fide educational purposes or for libraries’ archival use. Unless you exclusively intend your multimedia presentation for classroom use, fair use defenses don’t apply. Even if it’s for educational purposes, the court would have to determine the amount of the song used and whether the infringement impacted the copyright holder’s finances.

Licensing Copyrighted Music

If a copyrighted song is absolutely essential to your presentation, you may be able to license performance rights for the song, and legally receive permission to use it in a multimedia presentation. Most songwriters register their work with a publishing firm that handles licensing and royalty payments on their behalf, and nearly all commercial songwriters use ASCAP or BMI for this purpose. Publishing information is usually included in an album’s liner notes, and both publishing firms offer research services to determine if they license the song you wish to license. Licensing fees vary by the type of use and by the number of people expected to see the presentation.

Penalties for Copyright Violations

If you don’t receive permission from the copyright holder to include the song or fail to purchase a license for a song in a multimedia performance, you’re in violation of copyright law. In most cases, this is handled in civil courts, and the copyright holder may exercise several options against you. Copyright holders may receive an injunction that orders you to immediately stop using the infringing song, and may seek monetary damages that range from $750 to $150,000 per copyrighted work. Criminal copyright infringement is more rare, but carries penalties of up to five years in prison or $250,000 in fines.

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