In the movie, "The Perez Family," there was a scene that featured the band playing something like two lines of the song "I Will Survive" before there was a voice-over.

In my screenplay, I have the hero enter a karaoke contest singing "Girl From Ipahema," and if it were made into a movie, he'd be shown singing:

"Tall and tan and young and lovely
The girl from Ipanema goes walking
And when she passes
Each guy she passes goes aaah."

If a movie featured "all" of "nearly all" of these songs, the producers would have to pay royalties to the rights holders.

But what determines how much of an excerpt can they present without paying?

Are there any lawyers on the site that can cite "hard and fast" rules for this?

Or is it a "softer" process where you write to e.g. the William Morris Agency, and ask them how of much the song one can use without paying?

  • Under "fair use" rules you can use the whole song. But RIAA lawyers claim four notes is enough to constitute plagiarism in the eyes of law, so I guess 'copyright violation' is a short way beyond that.
    – SF.
    Feb 26, 2015 at 15:45
  • @SF: I took out the copyright tag, because this is a "fair use" issue. "Copyright" is publishing something and claiming it's your own, not performing a work that is clearly someone else's.
    – Tom Au
    Feb 26, 2015 at 16:54
  • Not entirely; there's the matter of Licensed use as well - where you either pay, or - for shorter pieces - obtain a free permission to use them. Fair Use is not limited in size, but in application - educational, news reporting, parody etc.
    – SF.
    Feb 26, 2015 at 18:05
  • OTOH you, as the screenwriter don't really need to purchase or obtain any permissions - you just need to disclose the use of copyrighted piece to the agents of the studio which buys your screenplay. It's them who then handle the licensing agreements with the copyright holder, and they pay for license to use the part of the song in the movie.
    – SF.
    Feb 26, 2015 at 19:45

3 Answers 3


Zero seconds. If you can recognize the song - you pay.

The (non-existent) 30-second rule

  • First, the correct answer, and second, debunking a "popular" (but wrong) answer.
    – Tom Au
    Mar 1, 2015 at 1:21

There is no line in the sand when it comes to fair use. It would be much simpler if there was and you could write rules to allow a computer to check, but is better that there is no hard line. Sometimes it is fair use to copy an entire work. Sometimes it is not fair use to copy a single letter. And just to make things complicated are recommended but unnecessary licences where an otherwise fair use is explicitly paid for, either to limit perceived liability or to just make people happy.

Here are some examples of whole work fair use copying: Strongs Concordance, The Annotated Alice, The Google Library Scanning Project.


The problem is that I think it varies depending the country. I think that in the US and for a US distribute fil is around 20 seconds... I could be wrong

  • Welcome to the site. Your answer squares with my recollection. It might be 25 seconds or 15, but I think you have the right idea.
    – Tom Au
    Feb 26, 2015 at 16:52
  • Can you provide a source for this? Feb 26, 2015 at 17:53
  • I'm afraid it's not correct; a ~2s piece 4-note riff from "Stairway to Heaven" didn't make it into "Wayne's World" due to copyright dispute (other than US theatrical release). So - Four notes seems to be accurate as the limit.
    – SF.
    Feb 26, 2015 at 18:12
  • @SF: I have a recollection of reading about this, and I believe that the issue was an "instrumental" version of the piece that was disallowed. Put another way, stricter rules may apply to "arrangements" than to a "plain vanilla" version of a piece.
    – Tom Au
    Feb 26, 2015 at 19:34
  • @TomAu: These particular four notes come from a part of the song which is instrumental, the intro - not an arrangement, just first four notes of the song. And even if you find some loophole for the sung lyrics, there's surely none for the background music.
    – SF.
    Feb 26, 2015 at 19:38

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