student film music

Is It Legal To Use Copyrighted Music In A Student Film?

It is illegal to use copyrighted music without permission in a student film, however, under the “fair use” terms, it maybe possible to use copyrighted music if the student film is intended for research,teaching, private study, reviews, reports or education. The area of “fair use” is subjective however, and although the student film may fall under the “fair use” terms, the music use can still be contested by the music owner. 

Many people are unsure of when they can use particular music, for how long, if at all.

Additionally, it can be hard to understand when a student can use an artist’s music in films or upload a YouTube video using an artist’s music in the background.

It raises questions such as; for how many seconds can you use of someone else’s music, can you use their music, and do you need to ask permission?

The law varies across the globe but in general you would have to ask the owner’s permission to use their music. However, there are a few exceptions that will be highlighted in this article.

music copyright in a student film

What is music copyright?

Music copyright is a form of protection for the artist since it would be unfair if their work was exploited. Music copyright is essentially the right to reproduce the two separate parts relating to music. There is a right to the copyright for the musical composition and copyright to the sound recording.

UK Copyright Law

Firstly, it is illegal to download and send a free copy of a sound to your friend unless it is on a site where the artist is happy for people to listen e.g YouTube.

UK music copyright laws are there to protect the musical property of songwriters and record artists.

The Copyright, Design, and Patents Act 1988 means the music artist owns and controls the rights to their music, and this covers them for their lifetime and then an additional 70 years after death.

After those 70 years, the musical work enters the public domain which means it can be used for free by anyone without needing any sort of permission as long as the musical work has not been assigned to another owner in a will.

Music Copyright Law in the UK

As an artist, if you wanted to copyright a song so that other people can’t use it, it is beneficial to know that this is done automatically once the song is recorded.

To be able to claim any royalties you would have to join collection societies to start gaining from your copyright.

The Copyright, Design & Patents Act 1988 outlines that the owner (artist) has the right to copy the work or rent or lend it to the public. This would be beneficial for any students who wanted to get their hands on copyrighted music and could rent the song for a certain amount of time.

However, most students would not go to such lengths for a film they are making. Therefore, luckily there are other ways to use an artist’s music-especially if it’s for teaching purposes.

music copyright and filmmaking

Can a student or anyone use a few seconds of a copyrighted song?

To use any song, whether it be from 30 seconds to 10 minutes or more, you will need a license. Without permission, it would constitute an infringement.

YouTube lays out in their music policy directory which songs would be restricted if used in a film or video. It also outlines the consequences of using the music.

Additionally, certain songs will trigger adverts to come on during your video and the revenue (if you make any) will go to the owner of the song rights.

YouTube will be able to see if you use someone else’s music due to their content ID system since it will compare material with what is logged on file. However, sometimes music can fall under the fair use category which would mean you would be able to use that music in your film/video.

What is fair use copyright in the UK?

Music copyright is there to protect artists. However, there is a term called ‘fair use’ which sometimes can be used so that others can use music freely.

The exceptions where “fair use” applies are for music usage intended for:

  • Research 

  • Teaching 

  • Private study 

  • Reviews

  • Reports

Fair use law is not only applicable to text-based work but also applies to musical, dramatic, artistic, and literary works. However, the copyright of printed music is not covered by ‘fair use.’

Therefore, if you can outline that you are making a student film intending to educate and teach others then using copyrighted music could fall under the area of “fair use”. 

However, if your educational or student film goes live on YouTube, their Content ID system will flag the music regardless of the intended use as currently, YouTube takes a blanket approach to music copyright , so you will only be able to share your film privately, as intended by the “fair use” law.

When selecting music for your student film, you should always do your research first, just in case, since you would want to avoid any sort of copyright infringement penalties. If you are a student, you may wish to check that your student film fits the above categories just to be on the safe side. 

Even better still, use a “royalty free music” library, which is pre-cleared music for film and content. By doing this you are not relying on the subjective fair use terms.

Some artists are not keen on the UK law surrounding fair use so they will try and claim copyright infringement. They may feel they are entitled to claim the money since their song is being used. This is because they feel they are at a loss.

This is why  “fair use” is considered a grey area, and should not be relied on as it is subjective.


music for videos on youtube download

More information about fair use…

‘Fair use’ is generally an exception to copyright protection that allows someone to use copyrighted work without the copyright holder’s permission as long as the intended use falls under one of the “fair use” exceptions, for example, the film is for educational purposes.

However, you always have to be willing to justify why you are using that music just in case you are contacted by the artist or their management .

Typically that only happens in extreme cases or if your video were to go viral, but in today’s online world where music can be easily identified using “bots”, you need to ensure your chosen music is OK to use, otherwise, your film and all that hard work could be taken down.

Using music for private study, exploration or exam purposes.

If you wish to use someone else’s music for the use of private study, exploration, or exam purposes then you must do it yourself and for those purposes. However, other people can make a single copy on their behalf.

Regarding ‘fair use’ used during examinations/ or music being used in an examination piece (a submitted film for grading), it is clear it is allowed as long as it abides by the Intellectual Property Offices’ Exceptions to Copyright for Education and teaching purposes.

They state it is acceptable to use copyrighted music if:

  • The work is copied by the student or individual providing the instruction.

  • The work is not copied using reprographics.

  • The source of the examination or instruction material is acknowledged.

  • The examination or instruction is solely non-commercial.

background music depiction


Overall, it is always important to check all the rules around music and to always ask permission if you are unsure.

However, if you are a student and can prove you used the music in the film for teaching purposes, you’ll most likely can claim “fair use”, as long as you can show that the film is for teaching purposes or within the “fair use” guidelines.

“Fair use” of music covers music used in research, teaching, private study, reviews and reports, however, fair use is subjective and if the musical artist disagrees that your content falls under the terms of fair use, this is when things becomes very tricky and “fair use” cannot be relied on .

With so many great royalty free music libraries out there, many offering free royalty free music, there are many alternatives to relying on “fair use”, so if you are unsure, play it safe and choose pre-cleared royalty free music.  

Disclaimer: This blog is intended as a guide only for educational and informational purposes. It is not legal advice. The content contained in this article is not legal advice or a legal opinion on any specific matter or matters.