James Ashby and Ben Smith from the band Private Jet.

How many notes can be used from someone else’s song?

In UK Copyright Law there are no rules about the exact number of notes that can be used from someone else’s song. Although it is natural to be inspired by other songs when producing new music, there is a fine dividing line between simply being inspired and copying. In the UK, your song is considered original, and thus protected by copyright, if you use your own skill, labour, judgement and effort to create it as opposed to merely interpret someone else’s piece of music. In order to be protected, your song needs to be fixed in writing or some other permanent form.

The number of notes used in a song is not a criterion to assess originality. It is the quality of the part taken that matters, not the quantity. A tune consisting of only a few notes can carry copyright. For example, Fourscore by Lord David Dundas – the signature tune used by Channel 4 for ten years – is copyright protected even though it includes only four different notes.

As we have seen in Step 1.4, another basic principle of copyright law is that it protects only the expression of ideas, not the ideas themselves. This can be crucial when writing the lyrics of a song; for example, the fact that U2’s Pride (In the Name of Love) is copyright protected should not prevent you from writing your own song about Martin Luther King, Jr., as long as your work is substantially different and you add your own skill, labour, judgement and effort on it.

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This article is from the free online course:

Music Copyright: Understanding UK Copyright Law When Working with Music

The University of Glasgow