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My current WIP game contains a music note collectible mechanic which allows players to play short tunes if collected in the right order (usually very obvious by the layout of the collectibles). So far, I've kept it at references to Mozart or Beethoven, as this is what fits my game's theme. However, I was thinking of hiding, say, the first few notes of the Mario theme, or of Star Wars' Imperial March, in certain locations, as an homage.

Is this copyright infringement? I assume that having a whole copyrighted song reconstructed note by note like so would constitute a breach of copyright, but how about 10 recognisable notes?

Thanks! :)

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  • \$\begingroup\$ There's a law stack that's way more suitable for this kind of question, and IP law is a very deep rabbit hole to go down. \$\endgroup\$ – Patrick Hughes Feb 15 at 21:50
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The details will vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but generally if the sequence of notes you string together is identifiable as somebody else's song, that's probably copyright infringement.

The idea that one can play "up to n seconds" of a song without incurring legal entanglements is generally incorrect. I know of no specific provision carving out that exception in US copyright law, for example, although I'm not a lawyer. I also know of no particularly specific definition of what "identifiable" would mean, or similar clear guideline that, for example "four notes is fine, five notes is infringement." It's all complicated.

Some jurisdictions have a "fair use" clause in their copyright doctrine, generally intended to enable parody, comment, or critique. Where it exists, fair use is almost always a defense, which means you've got to get sued and go to court to present it. Whether or not you actually have a reasonable case there is a matter for you and your lawyer to discuss. As above, it can be complicated.

So I'd suggest you skip out on the homages, as fun as it may be, it's probably not "a day in court" fun.

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