Although plenty of urban myths have floated around suggesting that a specific number of seconds or notes from a song may be used without violating copyright, there is no legal precedent to back these rumors. Copyright law does provide, however, certain exemptions from copyright protection under section 107 of Title 17 of the United States Code, also known as the fair use doctrine.
Fair Use Doctrine
The fair use doctrine states that reasonable portions of a copyrighted work may be used for teaching, scholarship, criticism, and news reporting without violating copyright protection laws. However, the rule does not specify exactly what constitutes a reasonable portion and each case must be judged and decided on its own facts. Ultimately, a judge or a jury may have to determine whether the sample used falls under the fair use exemption or is a copyright infringement.
The United States Copyright Office suggests users consider several factors when interpreting the fair use exception, including the purpose for which they plan to use the song's excerpt, the percentage of the song they want to use, and how its use will affect the earning potential of the original work. For instance, the owner of a song's copyright is unlikely to consider the use of a few seconds as part of a news report on a concert as an infringement, but will probably take fault with another artist sampling her work into a new song without permission.
After negotiation between associations of music publishers and associations of music educators, the parties agreed teachers and schools may use copyrighted songs for educational purposes in certain circumstances. For instance, the use of excerpts for academic purposes is acceptable where the section used does not represent more than 10 percent of the whole work. Also, one copy of a sound recording may be used for evaluation and rehearsal purposes, as long as you don't change the main character and nature of the song.
If you plan to use a song, or a portion of it, you can request permission from the copyright owner. If you do not know who owns a song's copyright, request assistance from the U.S. Copyright Office online at www.copyright.gov. Information on all songs registered after 1978 is available on their online catalog. However, you will need to request a manual search of the copyright details for songs registered before 1978.
Andrew Latham has worked as a professional copywriter since 2005 and is the owner of LanguageVox, a Spanish and English language services provider. His work has been published in "Property News" and on the San Francisco Chronicle's website, SFGate. Latham holds a Bachelor of Science in English and a diploma in linguistics from Open University.