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Can I use a name of a song and partial lyrics of song in a screenplay without the rights?

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The scene in question is a lead Character is driving from Point A to point B. He inserts a CD and a song comes on. He's in a good mood and sings along with the song that plays. Can I also put in a statement in parentheses. Example: (The song name and lyrics here are used via fair use and for demonstration only. If acquiring producer of the screenplay sees the song as a good fit, producer may obtain the rights for the song, assuming they are available, to be used as demonstrated for the actual movie that said producer will produce.)

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Attorney answers 4


Wrong question. Of course you can, but is it legal and what is the likely outcome if a claim is made against you. What part of "copyright" makes you think you have a right to copy? Read 17 USC 106 and look as the six enumerated rights. You are on record here sounding like you want to violate all six rights.

Can you put it in statement that it's "fair use". You can, but that would be wrong as all four factors under 17 USC 107 are against you.

Any producer seeing that nonsense you propose is going to [think you are a real novice but just] tell you to see a copyright lawyer and [get lost] then [hopefully not] get back to them and they will [NEVER] reconsider your screenplay. The items in bracket are added to show what they will think as they say just the rest.

What you need to do is get either an attorney or agent that has a clue about the music industry and how it works.

I am not your lawyer and you are not my client. Free advice here is without recourse and any reliance thereupon is at your sole risk. This is done without compensation as a free public service. I am licensed in IL, MO, TX and I am a Reg. Pat. Atty. so advice in any other jurisdiction is strictly general advice and should be confirmed with an attorney licensed in that jurisdiction.

Bruce E. Burdick

Bruce E. Burdick


As attorney Slater notes, it might be a sensible business risk to put in a copyrighted item as what we would call a "placeholder" to show context, as few copyright owners will see that and those that do will likely see you as providing only potential upside (increased royalties) for them.


This would be blatant, illegal, sanctionable copyright infringement. Don't do it. I regularly work for clients in the movie industry who license songs, and no responsible film maker or studio would dream of engaging in such egregiously illegal conduct. Without licensing the song, you can't use it. Your disclaimer will not help you at all.

Getting a license for a song like this is usually easy and surprisingly inexpensive. If you want to use the song, you will have to pay for it.

I worry about filmmakers who ask questions like this---if you think there was any possibility that your use of this song in this manner could be legal, then you undoubtedly have countless other rather profound misconceptions about IP law. You need to educate yourself on the basics of IP law before you get into trouble. And you need to retain IP counsel before you even think about making and releasing a movie----respectfully, you are in over your head here without legal counsel.

There are great courses at NYU and other institutions within New York on intellectual property rights as applied to film, music, dance, etc. Take one of them before you find yourself facing a financially disastrous law suit. And make friends with a lawyer who works in the field---if you are an aspiring filmmaker starting your career, you will soon learn that you need an intellectual property/entertainment lawyer on speed dial even after you educate yourself on the basics.


I think you intend to write a screenplay that will include some lyrics from a song. You do not intend to ask permission to do so from whoever owns the copyright in those lyrics. Is your plan unlawful?

Very likely not. Most screenplays are neither "published" nor "distributed" -- as those terms are used in copyright law -- but are rather sent to a fairly limited number of people who may be interested in buying or licensing the script. My take is that sending your script around to industry insiders does not infringe the copyright in the lyrics.

However, for the song to be lawfully performed in the movie the movie producer must first acquire a license from the copyright owner.

As my colleagues note, you really need to discuss this matter in private with your own entertainment attorney. Good luck.

The above response is general information ONLY and is not legal advice, does not form an attorney-client relationship, and should NOT be relied upon to take or refrain from taking any action. I am not your attorney. You should seek the advice of competent counsel before taking any action related to your inquiry.


While your proposed use would clearly be a violation of the songwriter's copyright (as noted by the other attorneys here), I can see someone wanting to take on this risk provided that the screenplay is not distributed publicly (but only to known industry professionals) and the warning includes your statement/disclaimer that such music and lyrics must be licensed in any production or performance of the screenplay. In a sense, you are assisting the copyright owner in promoting the licensing of his rights. But this is no guarantee that the copyright owner will be reasonable, will not see it as a violation of rights, and will not want to seek damages against you.

No attorney client relationship is created with this post and no legal advice has been rendered. This is for general informational purposes only and does not apply to any specific set of facts which have been reviewed by me. The information contained in this response has not been verified and is not necessarily accurate or reliable, or applicable to any particular jurisdiction. Always hire a licensed attorney to represent your legal interests.

Bruce E. Burdick

Bruce E. Burdick


Good practical advice.

David M. Slater

David M. Slater


Thanks, Bruce. I enjoy reading your comments which always appear to be right on the money.

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