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Copyright and Fair Use Guidelines

A brief overview of Copyright, Fair Use, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and the TEACH Act.


Music that is fixed in a tangible form--sheet music, scores, written notes, any sort of recording, whether analog or digital--is protected by copyright just as other materials are.

First, determine if the music you want to use is in the public domain or available from a licensed resource.

The exemption for classroom use (Section 110 (1)) allows the performance of music in the classroom.  The TEACH Act provides for the limited performance of music in the online teaching environment.

For other uses, conduct a fair use analysis to see if your proposed use would require permission.

Complicating factors:

  • You may be dealing with layers of copyright: e.g. a musical recording involves separate copyrights held by the composer, the performers, and the recording company. 
  • The fair use principles allow for the use of a portion of a work. so using an entire musical piece may require permission. The Fair Use Guidelines for Educational Multimedia recommend using no more than "10%, but in no event more than 30 seconds, of the music and lyrics from an individual musical work (or in the aggregate of extracts from an individual work)", but also have restrictions on where and for how long these works can be used.
  • Copyright protects creative expression, so musical works are generally more protected than less expressive works. Dramatic musical works, such as opera or musical theater, are generally more protected than others.
  • The purpose of your use is important. The use of music that is integral for teaching, comment, critique, or to illustrate a point would be more favored.  

Music and Video Databases

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