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What are the copyright laws for karaoke?

Updated April 17, 2017

Karaoke is an amusing way to spend an evening with friends. Originated in Japan, karaoke combines video images with popular songs. Instrumental versions of well-known songs are played with lyrics displayed in time with the music so people can sing along. U.S. federal courts have addressed the interaction of copyright law and karaoke music and investigated whether the rights to many songs played on karaoke machines and in karaoke bars were properly procured.

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Authorised Use

A creator's right to his work is protected by the first section of the U.S. Constitution. This right lasts as long as the creator is alive. The creator---in the case of karaoke, the songwriter or singer---must authorise the use of his creation---in this case, a song---for the commercial use of others. Generally, karaoke bars offer video recordings of customers singing. However, if the karaoke bar owner has not bought the rights to the song, he can not legally record his customers singing.

Fair Use

The Fair Use doctrine allows users to make copies or back up recordings for personal use. This doctrine also can apply to karaoke bar owners. Under the Fair Use principle, they can back up karaoke songs combined with graphics for archival purposes. The application of this doctrine to karaoke songs combined with graphics is controversial, though. Music and film corporations hold that making backup copies of karaoke songs combined with graphics should not fall under the Fair Use doctrine because they make money off the rights to these materials.

Synchronisation Licensing

If music is going to be used in sync with a visual image, whoever is broadcasting the music and image must buy a synchronisation license. This license is available for a flat fee. In 2006, members of the rock band The Eagles sued a karaoke device company who did not pay synchronisation licensing fees on the band's songs. The manufacturer claimed it did not have to pay these fees because its device, which displays the lyrics of a song while playing it, did not produce material on which synchronisation licensing was applicable. However, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed with the manufacturer.

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About the Author

Rachel Levy Sarfin has been writing professionally since 1998. She has written for the "Yardley News" and the Healthwise Lifewise blog, and served as the Jerusalem correspondent for the Omanoot website. Sarfin completed her Master of Arts in Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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