Background: I'm making a retro style game for both fun, and an unofficial contest.

I have bought a song, song X. However, I then found notation for song X, and all the instruments. So basically, it's a program recreating song X in a sense.

I took the notation, and used another program to make it sound like a chiptune does (just for the fun of it, and it sounds good :P). However, I would like to use this in my game. It's non-commercial, but is this allowed? I would've said yes, because I'm not actually using the original, copyrighted song.

I think the main point is can I:

  • Use the music with no reference to the author
  • Use the music with a reference, since it's non-profit.
  • Not use the music at all since the melody and rhythm is copyright.
  • 6
    \$\begingroup\$ This sounds suitably specific that you might want to invoke a lawyer. \$\endgroup\$
    – coderanger
    Commented Sep 18, 2010 at 10:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ Oh. I thought there would be a simple answer, since I'm using an unofficial...copy? of the music, then it could be a simple 'yes, anything to do with it is copyright you can't use', 'it's copyright but it's non-commercial so you just acknowledge them', or 'do what you want'. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 18, 2010 at 10:50
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ No one on this site is in a position to offer specific legal advice as far as I know. Someone could make general statements about IP law, fair use, etc etc, but you are asking something very specific that would probably require some decent case law research to answer with any degree of certainty. If you want to be safe, why not just shoot an email to the author? If they give you an okay, you can do whatever you want. \$\endgroup\$
    – coderanger
    Commented Sep 18, 2010 at 11:13
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ I don't have the rep to vote against closing (not that there is such a thing :) but I think the question should be kept open - see the Legal questions discussion for my reasons. \$\endgroup\$
    – Cyclops
    Commented Nov 7, 2010 at 14:30

4 Answers 4


You are using a derivative of the song, which falls under copyright. Also it doesn't matter whether you credit the original artist or not make a profit. It is still copyrighted.


I'll paraphrase my answer from Audio copyright questions (and I am Not a Lawyer :)

Note that this assumes you're in the US (or other Berne signatory countries), and in particular, Canada may be different, as was discussed.

It also assumes that when you say, "bought a song", you meant bought a copy from Amazon or somewhere - if you actually bought the copyright, then that's different. :) But buying a copy of a song, does not give you a whole lot of rights. For instance, you can't play it at public performances, without paying royalties (say you were a bartender at a bar, and broadcast the song over the bar's PA system - that's a no-no.)

In general: Anything that is copyrighted, requires the copyright owner's permission to use - regardless of whether you intend to make money with the project or not. There are certain very limited exceptions, like Fair Use, but that generally only applies to educational projects that use short excerpts of the material, not an entire piece. And this applies to derivative works (although a parody of the original material is also an exception to that).

Granted - if you aren't making money, the copyright owners probably won't come after you - but that's not the same as saying they can't legally. Even if it's a free project, they could take legal action against you.

RIAA goes after YouTube
RIAA sues the Girl Scouts


When you reproduce a song yourself (making a cover song and not using the original recording), you owe a royalty to the composer of that piece.

If you want to use your version without breaking the copyright and paying anything, you need a written permission from the composer. Since you are reproducing the song this license is called a mechanical license. It doesn't matter your use is commercial or not.

You can get a mechanical license to make covers for many songs from LimeLight or similar services, or you can find the composer (maybe online) and ask directly.

NOTE: Seems like LimeLight will no longer be operational after March 31st, 2015.

  • \$\begingroup\$ To be clear, a mechanical license is mechanical specifically because one doesn't need explicit permission from the copyright owner. Getting permission would simply be a license. A mechanical license is a license without permission that requires compensation to the copyright owner, and it only exists in the realm of music (not, say, games, movies, or books). \$\endgroup\$
    – Attackfarm
    Commented Jan 1, 2017 at 20:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Attackfarm There is some misinformation that needs to be cleared. Mechanical license is called "mechanical" because the term "mechanical" derives from the royalties paid to the composers from the "piano rolls" sold for use in "mechanical pianos" 100 years ago. Not because it is an automatic license as you claimed. Since that times the license covering rights of a composer for any reproduction of a music piece (cover) is called "mechanical" regardless of being automatic or requiring explicit permission. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 6, 2017 at 21:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'll amend my statement that mechanical licenses can cover both explicit and compulsory composition licenses, but in the U.S., mechanical licenses still allow for compulsory mechanical licenses which do not require written permission from the copyright holder, which is a point worthy of a mention (especially so since it is so unique in copyright law). There are a couple of limitations, but still noteworthy for anyone serious about covering songs. Etymology aside. \$\endgroup\$
    – Attackfarm
    Commented Jan 8, 2017 at 2:35

Don't use existing music, hire a composer to write a parody song or something stylistically similar. Game soundtracks should be unique. ;)


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