Using copyrighted music in a student film?
November 13, 2008 4:40 PM   Subscribe

Submitting a student film for a local festival. Unlicensed music used. How should I clear this?

I've produced a short movie for an introductory class at University and a friend recommended I submit it for a local film festival. However, I delved into my own collection of (legally-owned) CDs for its soundtrack.

The budget for this film was $0, and I have no intention of profitting from it in any way. Assuming it may be chosen (which is admittedly unlikely), what should I do to prevent the copyright police from knocking my door down?

I'm in Michigan, if it matters.
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Recut it with legal music. There are tons of local bands that would be happy to give you the rights, or you could delve into the moby library.

Having said that, no one will actually be checking the copyright on your music.
posted by roger ackroyd at 4:50 PM on November 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

It doesn't matter what state you live in, what your budget for the film was, or that you used your own legally acquired CDs; you are still on the hook if you use copyrighted music in it and are distributing it -- submitting it to a local festival counts as distributing.

However, if this is low key, your chances of being fingered for this are probably minimal. But if it does well at the festival, and gets passed around, and submitted elsewhere.... yeah. Listen to roger ackroyd, get some public domain or Creative Commons replacement. You'll be happier in the long run.
posted by the dief at 4:58 PM on November 13, 2008

It's extremely likely that the festival you want to submit it to will require you to prove that you've cleared the rights for music used, so you might not be able to submit it if you use copyrighted music. Check out Freeplay Music, the Podsafe Music Network, and Creative Commons for starters. But keep in mind there are still rights involved here and not every piece of music you find will allow you to use it for all purposes.
posted by joshrholloway at 5:27 PM on November 13, 2008

Umm... kind of weird that no one has suggested actually, you know, clearing the music.

If it's like Led Zep or the Beatles, you're probably out of luck. But if it's more indie-type stuff, you may very well get "festival rights" (the right to use the music in not-for-profit venues like festivals) for free. You might want to put an ad on CL or ask around at school for someone with experience doing clearances.

I don't recommend just giving up without even trying, as suggested above. Festival rights are much much easier to get than full commercial rights.
posted by drjimmy11 at 6:57 PM on November 13, 2008

If the music clips are less than 30 seconds total per song, you may be in the clear. In that case, they would be considered "samples."
posted by nikkorizz at 7:06 PM on November 13, 2008

IF you want to be legit with the music you have you need to go through ASCAP. (Probably, for a huge hunk of music at least.) But it'll cost ya. Well funded TV shows and movies will often rewrite/rescore something when they find out how much a short (yes, clips shorter than 30 seconds do need clearance, despite the misinformation from nikkorizz) music clip will cost them to run.

Finding a cover of a song will often get you cheaper price.

If it's a student film, you've probably got a lot of struggling bands around. Might be worth hitting them up for an original song in exchange for the publicity you'll bring.
posted by Ookseer at 7:45 PM on November 13, 2008

nikkorizz, that isn't how sampling works.
posted by Jairus at 9:57 PM on November 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Actually, you need to get two types of rights, Publishing and Performance. A cover version of a famous song can still be prohibitively expensive, because you need the publishing rights from the song's authors (or whoever they sold the publishing to).

But, as mentioned above, Festival rights are very different from full commercial rights and will not necessarily "cost ya." Ideally, you need to speak to an expert.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:56 PM on November 13, 2008

I am not a music clearance person, but I know enough to know there is a lot of misinformation here. Is there a professor at your school who might be able to give you some more reliable info?
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:59 PM on November 13, 2008

Speaking as someone who has been in your very position, you can do what I did... which is not to clear the music, let it run, and have absolutely no one say one word about it. Really. If someone does find out, the worst that's going to happen is you'll get a cease and desist letter, in which case you'll cease and desist, put in new cues of cleared music, and move on. You're not going to go to jail, and you're not going to be fined.

That being said, if you do plan on screening the film anywhere but your local festival, then follow the suggestions given above to clear the music.
posted by incessant at 11:10 PM on November 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

I attended a film festival earlier this year, and one of the entries was a very charming and well-done animation by a student. It featured a beautiful musical score that really added a lot to the film. The music was familiar to me, but I couldn't quite place it. The credits didn't mention the music at all.

After the awards ceremony, in which this film won an award, I approached the guy who made it, and asked him about the music. Turns out it was from Macross Plus. "Whom did you contact for permission for that?" I asked him out of genuine curiosity tempered with a tiny bit of suspicion. "I didn't get permission", he responded. I was very disappointed. This guy had won an award, at least partially, on merits that weren't his own.

Please don't be that guy. There's plenty of ways to make your film legit. If you choose not to do any of them, you shouldn't submit your film to the festival.

Also: every artist should read up on intellectual property law, at least a little bit.
posted by kidbritish at 8:48 AM on November 14, 2008

If you want to clear the rights, do yourself a favor and talk to someone with experience doing it. It can be a huge hassle to even track down all the rights holders, even if you're eventually granted the rights for free.

Actually, you need to get two types of rights, Publishing and Performance.

This isn't accurate. You need licenses for master rights and synchronization rights. For the synch rights, which allow you to put the song to film, you need permission from whoever owns the song's copyright, usually the music publisher. For the master rights, which allow you to use a specific recording of a song, you need permission from the record label or copyright holder for that specific recording. (The synch rights cover any version of a song, but the master rights are specific to the version and recording that you actually use.)

In order to find out who the publisher is, look at the liner notes for the CD. For each of the composers, it will show the name of their music publisher and whether they're affliated with BMI, ASCAP or SESAC. Then you can look up the songs in the relevant ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC repertory databases, which will have contact information for the publisher. The label's contact information should be available on the CD or easily findable online.*

It's not inconceivable that you'll get permission to use the songs for free, but it completely depends on the policies of the publisher and the label. Either way, it will take time -- several weeks at least. The rights are also not compulsory, so it's not a guarantee that you could get them even if you're willing to pay.

Here are a couple of other resources:

This is a good guide to getting clearances yourself that includes information about the details you'll need to send the publisher and the label to describe the usage in order to properly clear the songs.

Here's ASCAP's FAQ about licensing music for films.

* One of the complications here is if the label no longer exists -- if not, you'll have to find out who owns the master rights for the recording you want to use, which isn't always straightforward. There are some cases even when the label is extant that the copyrights for the recordings have been transferred to the artist or someone else. It's also possible that the publisher has sold the publishing rights to another company or been bought out.
posted by camcgee at 10:06 AM on November 14, 2008 [2 favorites]

Joe Escalante's radio segment, "Barely Legal" covered this at one point. There might be a relevant podcast on his station's web site.

IIRC, there are different rules for music clearance in terms of festival and venue. I believe the basic rule of thumb for festivals is that any music is OK. However, if you ever want to distribute the film you'll need to get clearances.

Have you tried talking to someone in your University's film department? They'll probably be able to point you to the proper resources.
posted by tinatiga at 10:14 AM on November 14, 2008

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