Ask SPLC: Can I use a popular song for a video?

Q:We are putting together a highlight reel of our football team’s season that we’ll show on our school’s cable student TV station. Can we use Queen’s song “We Will Rock You” as background music?

A: Unfortunately no. 

The general rule is that if you’ve not created a copyrighted work yourself you must either obtain prior explicit permission from the owner or be able to make a valid fair use argument to do so. 

Fair use is an exception that allows one to use a limited portion of a copyrighted work for specific purposes such as news reporting, commentary or review of the work. Forexample, it would be fair use to include a short clip of Queen’s song if you were reviewing the song or doing a news story on the history of legendary singing group. Unfortunately, using copyrighted songs simply as background music in a project — without any bona fide editorial discussion of the song —  will never constitute fair use. 

Legally using Queen’s song — or any copyrighted work — as background music in the manner and forum you describe would require explicit permission (or license) from the owner of the work. 

Every week, Student Press Law Center attorneys answer a frequently asked question about student media law in “Ask SPLC.”

See previous Ask SPLC questions

Have a question you’d like answered? Tell us in the form below. (Not all questions will be chosen for Ask SPLC.)

If you need immediate help, contact our Legal Hotline.