Do you need to be concerned about using copyrighted music in your productions? Absolutely.

The probability of even a private citizen being sued for copyright infringement increases all the time. The recent fury over unauthorized copying of music files is the latest instance of copyright holders using the Copyright Act to enforce their rights. In the last few months, multi-national corporations have sued children. If you produce videos that you will sell, broadcast or show in a public setting, it's wise to be concerned about copyright.

Under the Copyright law, the creator of a work automatically has copyright rights to that work. Once the work is registered with the U.S. Copyright Office, the holder of the copyright can sue for copyright infringement if anyone uses the work in a production without obtaining permission. As long as you start with someone else's copyrighted work, you can be liable for an infringement action, even if you copy only 5% of another's work. Liability means you may be subjected to statutory fines of up to $150,000 per infringement. Not the sort of funds you would normally have in your wallet (unless you're a copyright attorney, of course).

"What about fair use", you might ask. Fair use is the right to use some or all of another party's copyrighted work without permission. But the restrictions on fair use are significant. Only if you are using your work for criticism, comment, parody, news reporting, classroom teaching, scholarship, or research may you be able to defend yourself. Using someone else's work in a wedding video or a commercial proposal does not come under fair use. The Copyright Act provides protection for creators of works for a limited time, per the U.S. Constitution, but the so-called "limited time" is now the creator's life plus 70 years. You are safe in copying another's work when the copyright expires, but to be sure, the work must have been created before 1922.

If you must use copyrighted music in your productions, protect yourself by obtaining the proper permission. This typically involves submitting paperwork, paying a fee and waiting for processing and approval. See the Get Permission sidebar for details on who to contact. In most cases, a faster and more cost effective option is to use royalty-free music. Music libraries, like StackTraxx and BackTraxx, were created for producers, offering high quality music in a wide range of styles and lengths (see Listen Online sidebar), and granting purchasers permission to use the contents in their productions without the possibility of prosecution.

For information about requesting permission to use copyrighted music in your productions, contact:

§    ASCAP - (212) 595-3050,

§    BMI - (212) 586-2000,


Protect Yourself
How & Why to Copyright your Work

Just as you might install a burglar alarm in your house, you should protect your intellectual property (images and sounds) against theft. The good news is that protecting your productions is one of the easiest and least expensive legal steps you can take. Thanks to the copyright law, you can prevent anyone from copying, using or distributing your work.

The Copyright Notice
The copyright notice itself is very simple: the word "Copyright" or, preferably, the symbol ©, followed by your personal or company name, followed by the year date that the work was created. You can use an abbreviation for your name and you can use Roman numerals for the date if, like the original movie studios, you want to make it more difficult for viewers to know when your piece was created. Here are examples:

© Mark Levy 2004
© Mark Levy and Tim Kasinger 2004
Copyright ML Enterprises MMIV

By law, this is all that you need to establish your claim of copyright. But if you want to include stronger language in conjunction with your notice, you can do so. Standard language for such a warning is: "This work is protected under international copyright laws. Copying, reproducing or distributing this work or any portion thereof constitutes copyright infringement and may be punishable by fine or imprisonment".

Where Does it Go?
Since the copyright notice warns viewers, display or print it in logical places, such as directly on your DVD, its case or label, and in the first and last few seconds of your production.

What Does it Cost?
Copyright protection is the best legal bargain you can imagine. The notice itself gives you certain proprietary rights. Registering your work in the U.S. Copyright Office, however, gives you even more protection, such as the right to sue for infringement. For a mere $30 filing fee, your work will be registered in the Copyright Office and protected for your entire life, plus 70 years. Some attorneys have been known to charge as much as $500 to fill out the simple copyright form. That's simply outrageous. You can register yourself (most people do) by following instructions and mailing the form and a copy of your work with the $30 filing fee to the Copyright Office in Washington, DC. The form to use is Form PA (Performing Arts). You can download the form from the Library of Congress Web site, or call the Copyright Office hotline (202) 707-9100 to request copies of Form PA. If you access the Copyright Office via the Internet, print the two-page application form back-to-back on one sheet of paper.

You can save a few bucks by including more than one work and sending them to the Copyright Office on one or more DVDs (Vol. 1, Vol. 2, etc.). Call your group of works something like "Collection No. 1" and file them as a single work with a single copyright application (and a single $30 application fee).

Is Royalty-free Content a Problem?
The level of originality for copyright protection is extremely low. With rare exception, almost anything you create, even if it is very similar to someone else's work, can be protected.

A work that uses the intellectual property of others (e.g., the royalty-free music, graphics or video clips from your Digital Juice collection), your production can be protected as a whole as long as you have created the work. Your edit constitutes an original work.

Remember the Golden Rule
As you think about protecting your productions, be considerate of the copyrighted property of others. Using copyrighted footage (or music) in your productions is illegal. With 3200+ clips in VideoTraxx 1, and more than 3200 more in the soon to be released VideoTraxx 2, there's no reason to use footage without legal permission.

Mark Levy is a New York-based Patent Attorney and video producer