BMI Rate Court Judge KO’s DOJ on 100% Licensing

In what had been scheduled to be a mere pre-motion conference, the federal district judge overseeing the BMI Consent Decree, Louis L. Stanton, decided to hold a hearing on Friday, September 16. He then issued a six-page Opinion and Declaratory Judgment, ruling against DOJ’s interpretation of the decree which would have required 100% or “whole work” licensing:

The phrase in Art. II (C) of the Consent Decree defining BMI’s repertory as “those compositions, the right of public performance of which [BMI] has… the right to license or sublicense” is descriptive, not prescriptive. The “right of public performance” is left undefined as to score or form, to be determined by processes outside the Consent Decree. The Consent Decree neither bars fractional licensing nor requires full-work licensing.

Please read my prior post for more background, including a discussion on what is meant by the 100% or whole work licensing sought by the Justice Department as opposed to the fractional licensing regime under which ASCAP, BMI and the rest of the music industry operate.

Both BMI and ASCAP have operated on a fractional licensing basis for all of the 75 years since the consent decrees were entered into, offering licensees for only that percentage of a particular work that each respective performing rights organization (PRO) controls pursuant to its agreements with its member copyright owners and pricing their licenses accordingly. And both PROs declared the Court’s decision to be a major victory for songwriters.

After a brief recitation of the facts, including DOJ’s outlining its position last month and BMI’s seeking a declaratory judgment in support of fractional licensing, Judge Stanton began his discussion by stating: “Nothing in the Consent Decree gives support to the  [Antitrust] Division’s views.” He went on hold that the BMI Consent Decree “does not address the possibilities that BMI might license performances of a composition without sufficient legal right to do so, or under a worthless or invalid copyright, or users might perform a composition licensed by fewer than all of its creators.” The Court supported its conclusion by relying on Section XIV (D) of the Consent Decree, which reads as follows:

Nothing in this Article XIV shall prevent any applicant from attacking the aforesaid [rate court] proceedings or in any other controversy the validity of the copyright of any of the compositions in defendant’s repertory nor shall this Judgment be construed as importing any validity or value to any of said copyrights.

The Court construed this provision to mean that “[q]uestions of the validity, scope and limits of the right to perform compositions” are left, like the redress of copyright infringement, to determinations outside of the application of the Consent Decree. Neither DOJ in its statement, nor the Copyright Office in its memorandum addressing 100% licensing, nor BMI in its application for a declaratory judgment, cited Section XIV (D).

Judge Stanton then distinguished the situation where he had ruled in the Pandora case that the BMI decree forbids the partial withdrawal of rights by publisher members (i.e., where BMI would not be authorized to license performances online services like Pandora, leaving the publishers to license such services directly.  With regard to “partial withdrawal,” the Court, quoting its prior decision in the Pandora case, stated that “[t]he BMI Consent Decree requires that all compositions in the BMI repertory be offered to all applicants” that seek a license.

Judge Stanton’s quick and summary rejection of 100% licensing gives BMI a knockout victory over DOJ. However, this is not the end of the matter. ASCAP is governed by a separate but very similar Consent Decree that is overseen by its own Rate Court judge, Denise Cote, also of the Southern District of New York. Either ASCAP or DOJ could seek a declaration from Judge Cote, who could rule contrary to Judge Stanton. Similarly, DOJ could appeal Judge Stanton’s decision to the Second Circuit, regardless of whether Judge Cote rules on the issue. Moreover, as DOJ’s review of the ASCAP and BMI Consent Decrees encompassed several other issues besides 100% licensing, ASCAP has already started the process of seeking relief from Congress – something even DOJ suggested. BMI beat DOJ in the first battle but the war wages on.

The De Minimus Exception to Infringement is Now in Vogue for Sound Recordings

On June 2, a divided panel of the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s granting of summary judgment to defendants and vacated an award of attorney’s fees in the case of VMG SalSoul, LLC v. Ciccone. Plaintiff alleged that Madonna’s mega-hit, Vogue, infringed both the copyright in the composition and the copyright in the sound recording of the song, Love Break, recorded several years earlier by defendant, Shep Pettibone, who also worked on the recording of Vogue. Pettibone sampled, altered and incorporated the “horn hit” from Love Break into Vogue.

The “horn hit” consists of two forms, a single and a double hit, and occurs 27 and 23 times, respectively during the course of the 1982 recording of Love Break that is 7:26 in duration. By contrast, the “horn hit” sampled in Madonna’s 1990 recording of Vogue, is sampled solely from the single hit and is pitched a half tone higher than the original “horn hit” in Love Break. There are two versions of Vogue in issue: the “radio edit” that’s 4:53 in duration and contains one “single hit” and three “double hits” and the “compilation version” that’s 5:17 in duration and contains one “single hit” and five “double hits.” The single “horn hit” lasts less than a quarter of a second and the double “horn hit” also clocks in at less than a second in duration. The Court’s opinion includes the musical notation for both versions of the “horn hit” as heard in Love Break and in Vogue.  You can listen to the respective recordings here and here.

The Ninth Circuit had previously established the de minimus exception to copyright infringement for musical works in the 2003 case, Newton v. Diamond, where the court noted that the unauthorized use “must be significant enough to constitute infringement,” and that a plaintiff “must show that the copying was greater than de minimus.” Quoting Newton, the Court stated that a “use is de minimus only if the average audience would not recognize the appropriation.” After analysis, including listening to both recordings, the court held that the appropriation of both the underlying musical work and the master recording of the two versions of the “horn hit” was de minimus.

Addressing the alleged copyright infringement in the sound recording, the Court stated:

After listening to the audio recordings submitted by the parties, we conclude that a reasonable juor could not conclude that an average audience would recognize the appropriation of the horn hit. That common-sense conclusion is borne out by dry analysis. The horn hit is very short – less than a second. The horn hit occurs only a few times in Vogue. Moreover, the horn hits in Vogue do not sound identical to the horn hits from Love Break. As noted above, assuming that the sampling occurred, Pettibone truncated the horn hit, transposed it to a different key, and added other sounds and effects to the horn hit itself. The horn hit then was added to Vogue along with many other instrument tracks.  Even if one grants the dubious proposition that a listener recognized some similarities between the horn hits in the two songs, it is hard to imagine that he or she would conclude that sampling had occurred.

In applying the de minmus exception to sampling of sound recordings, the Ninth Circuit explicitly broke with the Sixth Circuit, the only other circuit to directly address the issue. In the 2005 case, Bridgeport Music v. Dimension Films, the Sixth Circuit adopted a bright-line rule, summarized by the Ninth Circuit as follows: “For copyrighted sound recordings, any unauthorized copying – no matter how trivial – constitutes infringement.”

Plaintiff, however, argued that there was a statutory basis for treating sound recordings differently from other copyrighted works and that the de minimus exception should not apply. The Court looked at Section 102, the list of copyrightable types of works, and found no basis to treat sound recordings differently from other copyrightable works, such as literary works. Similarly, in addressing the “bundle of rights” of Section 106, the Court concluded:

Again, nothing in that provision suggests differential treatment of de minimus copying of sound recordings compared to, say, sculptures. Although subsection (6) deals exclusively with sound recordings, that subsection concerns performances; nothing in its text bears on de minimus copying.

Plaintiff’s main statutory argument apparently was premised on the third sentence of Section 114(b), which reads as follows:

The exclusive rights of the owner of copyright in a sound recording under clauses (1) and (2) of section 106 do not extend to the making or duplication of another sound recording that consists entirely of an independent fixation of other sounds, even though such sounds imitate or simulate those in the copyrighted sound recording. As the Court pointed out, this section is a limitation on a copyright owner’s rights and states that “sound alike” recordings that do not incorporate a separate master recording (i.e., no sampling) are permissible.

Addressing this provision dealing with sound-alike recordings, the Court stated:

But the quoted passage does not speak to the question that we face: whether Congress intended to eliminate the longstanding de minimus exception for sound recordings in all circumstances even where, as here, the new sound recording as a whole sounds nothing like the original.

The Sixth Circuit’s Bridgeport decision was premised on an interpretation of Section 114(b) that the Ninth Circuit explicitly rejected, knowing that doing so would create a split in the circuits and uncertainty in this area of the law. The Court noted that as a practical matter, the circuit split already exists as district courts outside the Sixth Circuit have almost uniformly declined to follow Bridgeport Music’s bright line rule.  However, the Court did reverse the award of attorney’s fees:  “It plainly is reasonable to bring a claim founded on the only circuit-court precedent to have considered the legal issue, whether or not our circuit ultimately agrees with that precedent.

In dissent, Judge Silverman defended the Bridgeport precedent:

I find Bridgeport’s arguments well-reasoned and persuasive. Equally compelling is, I think, Congress’s Silence in the wake of Bridgeport, especially in light of the fact that the Sixth Circuit explicity invited Congress to clarify or change the law if Bridgeport’s bright-line rule was not what Congress intended. While it’s true that congressional inaction in the face of judicial interpretation is not ironclad evidence of Congressional approval, it’s not chopped liver, either. In this case, Bridgeport has not been hiding out in the woods, waiting to be found; it has been governing the music industry in Nashville and elsewhere for eleven years.

****

My own view is that the Ninth Circuit got it right here. There is no reason to treat sound recordings differently from other types of copyrighted works and the de minimus exception should apply where appropriate. Sampling is merely a form of aural collage art and there is no doubt that a court would find the incorporation of small snippets a copyrighted work of visual art such as a painting or photograph in another painting, photograph or sculpture either to constitute fair use or a non-actionable de minimus appropriation. In sum, Madonna has made de minimus usage as in vogue in copyright as she has long done with her clothing.

Interview on Music Publishing Podcast

Before the Memorial Day holiday, I had the pleasure of being interviewed by my friend and colleague, the composer Dennis Tobenski. Our 90-minute talk, which was posted last week, covered a variety of topics applicable to composers, songwriters and other creators, including copyright principles, fair use, the role of PROs and estate considerations for artists.

Here’s how Dennis summarized our discussion:

In our conversation, we talked about:

  • basic tenets of copyright
  • the limits of what is copyrightable
  • the Poor Man’s Copyright
  • the benefits of and incentives to registering your copyrights
  • fighting infringements
  • folio registrations
  • working with living poets vs. dead poets’ estates
  • Performing Rights Organizations
    • selecting
    • collecting performance royalties
    • what PROs don’t do
  • estate planning for artists
  • international copyright issues
  • why you should get permission <strong>before</strong> setting a text
  • First Sale Doctrine
  • licensing vs. selling
  • copying licenses
  • Fair Use
    • Fair Use is not a right; it is a defense against an infringement accusation*
    • the four factors of fair use
    • transformative use vs. derivative works
    • the false “rules of thumb” of fair use

And here’s the link to our talk:

 

The Question Songwriters Should Ask Obama at SXSW

This Friday, President Obama will be delivering the keynote address at this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Conference in Austin, Texas. Although originally just a music conference, SXSW now has three overlapping sections, Interactive, Film and Music. While it is doubtful that the President will be taking questions from the audience, songwriters and other musicians who may attend the Interactive portion of the should question him about what his Justice Department has proposed to do to them.

For over a year the Justice Department has been undertaking a review of the decades-old consent decrees that govern ASCAP and BMI, neither of which has been amended since the dawn of the digital age. Those of us who represent songwriters and publishers had been cautiously optimistic that the restrictions would be lessened. Indeed, in February 2015, the Copyright Office, in its comprehensive music licensing study and report, Copyright and the Music Marketplace (the “Music Study,” which I summarized and critiqued here), recommended several modifications.

However, last summer DOJ, of its own initiative, threw in a monkey wrench when it asked for comment on the possibility of ASCAP and BMI licensing entire works even where either performing rights organization (PRO) had only been assigned a portion of the copyright to the particular song by its members. This is referred to as “100% licensing.” Traditionally, music publishers and the PROs that represent them only license the percentage of the rights in a particular song that they own, which is referred to as “fractional licensing.”

On January 29, in response to a January 12 request of Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA), the Register of Copyrights, Maria A. Pallante, issued a 29-page report, replete with footnotes, Views of the United States Copyright Office Concerning PRO Licensing of Jointly Owned Works (the Report). The Report addresses the PROs and joint licensing more specifically than was done in last year’s Music Study. On February 4, Rep. Collins forwarded the Report to Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch for consideration by the Antitrust Division, which has oversight over the PRO consent decrees and is conducting the review of them.

In short, the Copyright Office stated in no uncertain terms that DOJ’s proposed 100% licensing scheme is a really bad idea that is based upon a misunderstanding of both the Copyright Act and plain old contract law, as well as long-standing music industry custom. The Copyright Office’s takedown of DOJ’s proposal is impressive. I’ll give you a few highlights below.

The Office believes that an interpretation of the consent decrees that would require these PROs to engage in 100-percent licensing presents a host of legal and policy concerns. Such an approach would seemingly vitiate important principles of copyright law, interfere with creative collaborations among songwriters, negate private contracts, and impermissibly expand the reach of the consent decrees. It could also severely undermine the efficacy of ASCAP and BMI, which today are able to grant blanket licenses covering the vast majority of performances of musical works – a practice that is considered highly efficient by copyright owners and users alike.

And that was just the top of page three! The Report goes on to discuss the divisibility of individual copyright rights and that the default rule is that each joint owner of a work may license the entire work subject to a duty to account to the other owners for their proportionate share of the proceeds. Against that backdrop, the Report states:

While the 1976 Act establishes default rules for joint works, it must be remembered that they are subject to the Act’s express provision that a copyright, and the exclusive rights thereunder, can be divided and separately owned. As a leading treatise explains, the default rules within the Act are merely a” starting point, “ with collaborators… free to alter this statutory allocation of rights and liabilities by contract.”

Addressing industry custom among co-writers of songs, the Report also noted:

The co-authors of jointly created musical works often enter into agreements that define the percentages of copyright ownership of each co-author and provide that each will retain control over his or her “share” of the work. For example, a typical clause might stipulate that each contributor “shall administer and exploit only [his or her] respective ownership share” of the work. The “administration” of the copyright is commonly understood in the music industry to encompass the right to issue licenses and otherwise exploit the song and collect royalties from those uses.

Turning specifically to the interpretation of the ASCAP and BMI Consent Decrees, the Report stated:

Even setting aside the express mandate of the Copyright Act, the decrees – like any contract – must be interpreted in light of the prevailing customs of the industry. Thus, while the consent decrees require ASCAP and BMI to license users to publicly perform their respective “repertoires,” each consent decree describes those repertoires in a manner that can, and should, be read consistently with the practice of fractional licensing.

Again turning to basic contract principles, the Report stated:

The PROs’ practice of fractional representation is consistent with the basic legal precept that one cannot validly convey rights to more than what one owns or controls….. Accordingly, the ability of ASCAP or BMI to license public performances for their respective members’ works is ultimately constrained by the terms of songwriter, publisher and administration agreements entered into by those members, which, as explained above, typically reflect understandings of divided ownership and fractional licensing.

And these choice comments only get us about half way through the Report! It goes on in this vein and addresses the practical concerns that ASCAP and BMI do not have contractual privity with non-members and are not able to account to any non-members for their interests in a 100% licensing regime. Here’s the heart of what I submitted to DOJ last November during the public comment period – about 27 pages shorter than the Report but making many of the same points:

While it is true that absent a written agreement to the contrary, an author of a joint work may license 100% of the rights in that work subject only to a duty to account to that author’s co-writers for their share of the proceeds, that is not how the music industry operates. For decades, songwriters and publishers have routinely entered into, and continue to enter into agreements where each party separately administers that party’s interest – and only that party’s interest — in the particular song.

In the area of synch licensing, music supervisors and other music clearance professionals know that they need to obtain permission from all parties that separately administer a portion of the copyright in the song. Similarly, mechanical licenses are issued on a fractional basis where multiple publishers separately administer their interest in a particular work. ASCAP and BMI likewise administer only their shares in the song and price their licenses accordingly.

ASCAP and BMI operate on a fractional licensing basis because contractually they cannot license greater rights than they are granted by the underlying rights holders, the music publishers. To require ASCAP and BMI to license on a 100% basis not only flouts decades of industry practice but vitiates the myriad agreements voluntarily entered into by songwriters and music publishers . It would also require songwriters and publishers to be involuntarily subjected to the licensing and payment terms of a PRO other than the one the parties chose to represent their interests in the particular works.

At a recent meeting of the AIMP [Association of Independent Music Publishers], we were informed that it in the Justice Department’s view, if the songwriters and publishers either do not – or cannot – agree to 100% licensing, ASCAP and BMI simply will not be able to represent the works where that is the case. If true, that would be a horrendous result, mandating that DSPs and other licensees would have to engage in the grossly inefficient process of directly licensing innumerable works from each individual rights holder. Given the way most popular songs are now written, this would require separate negotiations with multiple rights holders for the performance rights in each and every song rather than two or three PROs for all songs.

In sum, 100% licensing is contrary to longstanding industry practice and countless voluntarily negotiated contracts. It would turn a relatively straightforward and efficient licensing scheme for performance rights into one that is fractured, unwieldy and unworkable.

The Report reaches the same conclusion:

In sum, an interpretation of the consent decrees that would require 100-percent licensing or removal of a work from the ASCAP or BMI repertoire would appear to be fraught with legal and logistical problems, and might well result in a sharp decrease in repertoire through these PROs’ blanket licenses. It would seemingly punish copyright owners who have chosen to exercise their rights under the Copyright Act to manage their separate interests through the PRO of their choice.

***

Songwriters are unique among artistic creators in that about 75% of their income is regulated by the federal government. The biggest chunk of income songwriters receive is from public performances licensed by the PROs, of which the two largest, ASCAP and BMI and accounting for about 90% of the market, operate under consent decrees. The second biggest chunk, income songwriters receive from the purchase of recordings (whether in the form of CDs, LPs or downloads), is subject to a compulsory license with rates set by the Copyright Royalty Board. By contrast, recording artists, filmmakers, novelists, dramatists, and other fine and visual artists are under few, if any, federal restrictions on their livelihoods.

There are myriad articles in the popular press about the paltry royalties songwriters receive from streaming services such as Spotify, Pandora and YouTube. Few address the fine points of the PRO consent decrees and other statutory licensing regimes that form the backdrop for these payments. The Copyright Office, in its Music Study, recommended changes to the current music licensing regime that would relax restrictions on songwriters and music publishers and enable them to obtain income that more closely reflects fair market value.

It is somewhat telling that the President will be speaking not at the SXSW Music conference for creators of music, but at the Interactive conference, dominated by companies that use music and benefit from a licensing regime that keeps fees low. So the question songwriters should ask is “when will the government, specifically your Justice Department, stop screwing us?”

Do Candidates Have The Right To Conscript Songs For Political Purposes?

[Note: This piece was previously posted on NewMusicBox, a site for composers and fans of contemporary classical and other experimental music, on September 24, 2015.]

It’s another presidential election cycle and—in addition to PAC moneymen, countless commercials, polls, trolls, sound bites, and sniping—there’s the new tradition of one candidate or another pissing off some well-known recording artist by using the artist’s song without consent. Already we’ve had Neil Young trashing Trump’s use of “Rockin’ in the Free World.” REM is suing Trump, along with Sen. Cruz, over their use of “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” “Survivor” is suing over the use of “Eye of The Tiger” during Gov. Huckabee’s rally in support of Kim Davis, the county clerk who was jailed for refusing to issue any marriage licenses since she’d have to issue them to same sex couples. And the election is still more than a year away!

Are the artists’ claims likely to be successful? Readers of my prior posts can probably postulate that my answer will be “it depends.” Let’s see what you can and can’t do when using recordings of songs in connection with political campaigns. While some of the dos and don’ts involve some now-familiar copyright and music licensing principles, others potentially involve the federal trademark statute and various states’ laws on the right of publicity as noted in ASCAP’s FAQs on music in political campaigns.

Who can forget The Donald riding down the escalator to the Neil Young classic to announce his candidacy? That use is probably permissible. If a venue, such as a hotel, convention center, or other public gathering place has licenses from the PROs (ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC), then the use of the music is almost likely allowed and there’s not much the songwriters can do about it. The songwriters probably have a better case against Kim Davis and her cohorts, as the organizers of the impromptu outdoor post-prison rally probably didn’t obtain PRO licenses for the event.

Notice I mentioned songwriters and not recording artists. There has long been a public performance right in musical works and that right is codified in Section 106 of the Copyright Act. However, as I’ve mentioned in other posts, the US is one of less than a handful of nations, including North Korea and Iran, that doesn’t have a public performing right in sound recordings for traditional television and radio broadcasts or for playing the recording over loudspeakers. Although legislation has been introduced in recent years and the Copyright Office endorses such a right, currently the only public performance right in a sound recording is in “digital transmission,” i.e., internet streaming, and Sound Exchange is the U.S. collective that licenses those rights and pays out royalties on behalf of artists and labels.

Readers of my most recent post on fair use would not be surprised that the use of the clips of politicos and other notables on newscasts would be clear examples of fair use under Section 107 of the Copyright Act. Before you even get to the four factors of Section 107, the statute states that items like “criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research” are among the uses typically found to be fair. And TV networks and stations have PRO licenses to cover the music use.

Both songwriters and recording artists would have a compelling case under copyright law if a candidate used a song in a commercial without permission. Using pre-recorded music in any audio-visual work requires synch licenses from both the copyright owner of the song (the music publishers) and the copyright owner of the recording of the song (the label). As I explained in my last post, a fair use argument for this kind of usage would almost certainly fail, given that these uses are typically licensed. Nor could a candidate claim that the use of the music is permitted as First Amendment “political” speech. The First Amendment protects the right of individuals (and according to the Supreme Court, corporations) to freedom of expression, especially political speech. It doesn’t generally give you the unfettered right to use someone else’s expression, however.

But consideration of Copyright Act provisions isn’t the end of the inquiry here. Artists may also claim violations of Section 43(a) of the Lanham Act, the federal trademark statute. Although it’s generally applied to false advertising claims, the statute could be used to claim that the association with an artist creates a “likelihood of confusion” based upon a misleading “association… with another person, or as to the origin, sponsorship, or approval of his or her goods, services…” or in other words, a false or misleading endorsement of the candidate. So, regardless of PRO licenses, candidates would be well advised to get permission if they wanted to use anyone’s hit as a theme song.

Moreover, it’s possible that a candidate could violate an artist’s actual trademark, which would constitute a direct violation of the Lanham Act, which—like the Copyright Act—can subject an infringer to money damages and injunctive relief. While it’s not likely that a candidate would use a band’s trademarked logo, names and phrases associated with recording artists and other entertainers often are trademarked. Just see how fast Michael Buffer’s legal eagles will swoop down on you if you use the phrase, “let’s get ready to rumble” in any kind of commercial activity. Many artists, including Madonna, have trademarked their names, and Taylor Swift recently filed a whole bunch of trademark applications for phrases associated with her 1989 album. As any copyright maven knows, titles, names, short phrases, and slogans can’t be copyrighted. But they can be trademarked for all kinds of uses from apparel to greeting cards.

Then there’s the “right of publicity” (sometimes referred to as the right to privacy), which, unlike copyright and trademark, is governed by individual state’s laws. While many states have statutes governing this right, including New York and California, other states enforce these rights based on common law (judicial precedents). The right of publicity typically includes the use of an individual’s name and likeness for commercial purposes. That’s why songwriter, label, management, and other agreements typically have provisions granting the use of the person’s name and approved likeness and bio for a variety of uses. While most composers would hardly object to their music publisher or label using their name and image to promote their works, these rights don’t automatically flow with the copyrights to songs or recordings of them. A candidate’s using a song without permission could constitute a violation of the artist’s publicity/privacy rights.

And there’s another wrinkle to the right of publicity. In some states, like California, a celebrity’s right to exploit his persona extends beyond the grave. In others, like New York, the right terminates when the individual does. So, in addition to wills, trusts, and other documents, if you’re a celebrity, a very important aspect of estate planning is deciding upon your domicile at the time of your eventual demise.

So, what have we learned here? Campaigners, much like cover bands, should be careful about using songs. If you’re paying tribute to a band by simply performing covers of their songs in a venue that’s got PRO licenses, then you’re almost certainly okay. But if you start selling hats, T-shirts, and mugs emblazoned with the band’s logo, a picture of its members, or a well-known phrase from one of their songs, or use the songs to sell products or services, then you’d better be prepared to pay tribute in the form of cold cash as you could run afoul of trademark and publicity laws.

One would think that politicians and their advisors would know this by now. Given that there are artists on every point in the political spectrum, a candidate could simply solicit one sympathetic to their views and avoid all sorts of tsuris. So when it comes to using someone else’s stuff, whether in political campaigns or artistic collages, when in doubt, leave it out. Or as I’ve said before, you might want to seek consent of the rights holder (or the advice of competent counsel) before putting it in.

Are Transformative Fair Use Principles Foul To Musicians?

[Note: This is part two of a two-part article that was previously posted on NewMusicBox, a site for composers and fans of contemporary classical and other experimental music, on September 17, 2015.]

In my previous post, I sped through the history of fair use from Justice Story to the current statute and strolled through a few examples of the analysis that’s typically used when applying the four factors of Section 107 of the Copyright Act, the statutory test for fair use.

But while courts always construe the statutory factors, the “real” fair use test—at least since the mid-1990s—is nowhere in the statute. Instead, the dispositive inquiry is whether the usage is “transformative.” So, what is “transformative use” and where did it come from?

A) Transformative Use, Music and Parody

The “transformative use” test comes from an influential 1990 Harvard Law Review article by Judge Pierre N. Leval. But since neither articles, books, nor blog posts have any legal effect unless adopted by a court (or legislature), it’s the Supreme Court’s casting of Judge Leval’s concept that defines “transformative use.” In the 1994 case, Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, the high court, citing the Leval article in its analysis under the first factor, defined “transformative use” as follows:

The central purpose of this investigation is to see, in Justice Story’s words, whether the new work merely “supersede[s] the objects” of the original creation (“supplanting” the original), or instead adds something new, with a further purpose or different character, altering the first with new expression, meaning, or message; it asks, in other words, whether and to what extent the new work is “transformative.” (Citations omitted).

If that sounds kind of vague, it is. And while ambiguity is often cultivated in the arts, it’s not so good in a legal standard. And as applied, it sometimes seems like a transformative use of Justice Stewart’s “I know it when I see it” test.

In Campbell, the Supreme Court established that parody can be a form of fair use. The case concerned 2 Live Crew’s use of part of the Roy Orbison hit, “Oh, Pretty Woman,” in their similarly titled song,Pretty Woman,” despite being denied permission for the usage.  The band used the introductory guitar riff and the first part of the chorus before moving on to new material that was deemed to mock the original tune. The Court found that 2 Live Crew’s use of Orbison song was “transformative” in that it did not merely reproduce and appropriate the original composition.

In reaching this conclusion, the Court established guidelines for determining whether a use would be a “parody” in the legal sense, i.e., one for which permission of the copyright owner of the parodied work would not be required: first, only so much as is necessary to conjure up the original work was to be used; and second, the parody must comment in some way on the original work. In other words, it wouldn’t be a “fair use” parody to write new lyrics to an underlying song that talked about something else. And as the Supreme Court noted, a parody protected by fair use need not be funny or artistically successful.

In other words, one can’t write new lyrics to every line in a Michael Jackson song as an ode to multifarious foodstuffs and expect it to be a protected parody. That’s why Weird Al gets permission for his “parodies” even though he obliquely cites fair use on his website.

These principles were more recently applied in Bourne Co. v. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp., a 2009 decision from the Southern District of New York (district courts being the federal trial courts) involving the Family Guy episode, “When You Wish Upon a Weinstein.” The show featured a song called “I Need a Jew” that used elements of the Disney classic, “When You Wish Upon a Star.” Defendants, including the show’s auteur, Seth MacFarlane, had sought permission from Bourne but were denied.

MacFarlane had the chutzpah to use it anyway and the court concluded that Peter Griffin’s plaintive pleading was a fair use parody of Jiminy Cricket’s crooning in Pinocchio. Relying on Campbell, the Supremes stated: “[t]he Court finds that the new work is transformative; consequently, the first factor weighs in favor of a finding of fair use.”

B) Transformative Use in Dramatic and Visual Arts Cases

But now let’s look at a 2015 parody case from the same court involving another of the performing arts. In Adjmi v. DLT Entertainment, Ltd, the Southern District held that an Off-Broadway stage play, 3C, was a fair use parody of the iconic seventies sitcom, Three’s Company. There, “[t]he parties agree that 3C copies the plot, premise, characters, sets and certain scenes from Three’s Company.” After applying the four factors, the Court held:

The Play is a highly transformative parody of the television series that, although it appropriates a substantial amount of Three’s Company, is a drastic departure from the original that poses little risk to the market for the original.

Apparently, as long as you’re not mocking music, it seems you can take an awful lot of material, including entire scenes, so long as you’re making some sort of statement about the original.

But most fair use cases don’t involve parodies. Moving to the visual arts, Blanch v. Koons, addresses notorious appropriation artist Jeff Koons’s incorporation of—among other images—a cropped, rotated, and altered portion of a copyrighted photograph of a woman’s legs and feet from a shoe ad into a massive collage painting. The Second Circuit (circuit courts being the federal appeals courts between the district courts and the Supreme Court) held that Koons’s use of the magazine ad photo was transformative in that his change of colors, background, media, and size of the objects had an entirely different purpose and meaning from the original, as Koons’s work was commenting on “the social and aesthetic consequences of mass media.”

In the 2013 case Cariou v. Prince, the Second Circuit moved the dial further towards finding transformative (and therefore fair) use in appropriation art. At issue were 35 of Cariou’s black and white photographic portraits of Jamaican Rastafarians that were published in a book and which Richard Prince incorporated into large-scale artwork that altered the images, including cropping, coloring, and obscuring faces with painted “lozenges.” Some of Cariou’s and Prince’s works were reprinted in the court’s opinion. The Court found fair use with respect to 25 of the photos, reversing the district court’s contention that the “transformative use” had to comment somehow on the original photos as in parody cases:

The law imposes no requirement that a work comment on the original or its author in order to be considered transformative, and a secondary work may constitute a fair use even if it serves some purpose other than those (criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research) identified in the preamble to the statute.

As to the remaining five Cariou photos, the Court noted that “Prince did little more than paint blue lozenges over the subject’s eyes and mouth, and paste a picture of a guitar over the subject’s body.” What’s striking, however, is that even with respect to these uses, the Second Circuit thought that even they could be deemed to constitute fair use and kicked the case back to the district court to make that determination. As we’ll see, the Cariou court’s expansive view of transformative use has its critics.

The Second Circuit has also ruled that the copying of entire posters, albeit in greatly reduced size, in a 480-page coffee table book about the Grateful Dead was fair game. The images appeared along with timelines and commentary about the band. The Court’s opinion stated that “the first fair use factor weighs in favor of [defendant] because [defendant’s] use of [plaintiff’s] images is transformatively different from the images’ original expressive purpose and [defendant] does not seek to exploit the images’ expressive value for commercial gain.” In reaching this conclusion, the Court cited an earlier case which held a search engine’s use of thumbnail reproductions of images was highly transformative. In case you were wondering, this is why I’m pretty sure my reduced-scale cell phone photo of the Chutzpah game reprinted in last week’s post is likely a transformative fair use.

C) A Fair Use Remix: Applying the Standards From Non-Music Cases to Musical Examples

But as this post is running long and my readers’ patience is no doubt growing short, let’s see what happens when we apply standards from these other cases to a few music hypotheticals:

1. As we know, reproducing an entire visual work, although in greatly reduced size, can be considered a transformative, and ultimately fair, use. Now imagine posting an entire John Adams or John Corigliano score, or even the complete sheet music to a Taylor Swift song – in miniature – without permission.

2. We also know from the Three’s Company case that taking entire scenes from a TV show is now fair game if you’re doing a parody of the underlying work. Now envision using a whole scene from an Adams opera or Sondheim musical or an entire Beatles song in a musical parody.

3. We’ve also learned from the appropriation art cases that taking recognizable portions of copyrighted works and creating a collage or visual remix can be a transformative fair use. Now try claiming fair use when taking twenty seconds of a recording of “Satisfaction” or any other famous song and putting it into a film or sampling several snippets of it in your own recording.

4. As was demonstrated in the Koons and Cariou cases, the recasting—including changing the color and background of a work—can be a transformative use. Now picture “recasting” the setting of an orchestral work by “coloring” it for concert band.

I’m guessing that most of my musician readers are chuckling at these, knowing that it would take chutzpah to claim any of the above to be a “fair use” of the music. Working backwards, we call the fourth example making an “arrangement” for which permission is clearly required. The two uses in the third hypothetical are typical examples requiring synch and sampling licenses, respectively. As for the second hypothetical, we know from the Family Guy decision that the more restrictive standard set out in the 2 Live Crew case two decades earlier still applies to musical parodies. And anyone who posts an entire piece of copyrighted music stands a good chance of being subject to a DMCA takedown notice or worse, as reprints of only a few bars are typically licensed.

Mind you, I’ve only cited a handful of the myriad fair use cases and all of them so far have been from courts in New York City. While federal courts throughout the country hear copyright cases, the New York decisions are particularly influential because of the copyright-based industries centered there, such as publishing, music, theater, advertising, and fashion. And not surprisingly, Judge Leval, the progenitor of transformative use, served as a judge both in the Southern District and on the Second Circuit.

If you’ve read my arrangements post you may be thinking that this whole “transformative use” thing sounds a lot like making a “derivative work,” something the copyright owner has the right to grant or deny approval. You’re not alone and last year at least the Seventh Circuit, in finding fair use in another appropriation art case, agreed:

We’re skeptical of Cariou’s approach, because asking exclusively whether something is “transformative” not only replaces the list in §107 but could also override 17 U.S.C. §106(2), which protects derivative works. To say that a new use transforms the work is precisely to say that it is derivative and thus, one might suppose, protected under §106(2). Cariou and its predecessors in the Second Circuit do not explain how every “transformative use” can be “fair use” without extinguishing the author’s rights under §106(2). We think it best to stick with the statutory list, of which the most important usually is the fourth (market effect). [Citations omitted]

[Click here for my more recent and detailed discussion of tranformative fair use versus protected derivative works in light of Judge Leval’s Google Books opinion.]

So why does music seem to have more restrictive standards for fair use than other creative arts? A clue is in the quotes from the cases. With respect to music, there’s a well-established market for these uses, including licensing arrangements, reprints, synchs, and samples, all of which are treated as derivative works. And courts are very reluctant to disrupt the marketplace— even one as dysfunctional as music licensing. This goes back to the first principles of the Copyright Clause, to Justice Story’s fair use test from nearly 175 years ago (“…the degree in which the use may prejudice the sale, or diminish the profits…”) and the fourth factor of Section 107. Ironically, it was the famous Southern District “Thou shalt not steal” case that essentially created the sampling marketplace.

And given the steep decline in mechanical royalties and the paltry payments from streaming, permissions, synch, and sampling uses are among the few areas where musical creators can reasonably be compensated. Do we really want to change this in order to expand fair use? While doing so would greatly enlarge the creative pallet available for new works, it would deny the owners of existing works the fundamental right to say “no” to uses of their works they don’t like and limit the creators of both the underlying and new works to profit from them. Whether or not such a reshaping of the fair use landscape is a good thing or not is a policy debate to be had elsewhere.

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So what does our slog through the thicket of fair use jurisprudence tell us? Clearly, fair use is a continually evolving doctrine and in recent years some courts and commentators have viewed fair use broadly, like a “right” at least as applied to creative works other than musical ones. In fact, in a bit of hot news, on September 14, the Ninth Circuit in California issued a 34-page fair use opinion in the “dancing baby” case, the one where a mom posted a 29-second video on YouTube that showed her toddler dancing to Prince’s song, ”Let’s Go Crazy” and Prince’s publisher, Universal Music, told her to take it down.

The Court held that a copyright owner must consider whether the online usage is protected by fair use prior to sending a takedown notice under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 (DMCA). In reaching this decision, the Ninth Circuit confronted the issue of whether a fair use is an “affirmative defense” or a “right” and, at least for purposes of the DMCA, views it more like a right as fair use is “authorized by law.” Of course, any “consideration” of fair use involves application of the detailed analysis discussed above, including the application of “transformative use” under the Section 107 factors and increasingly complicated case law.

So how should one determine if a use is fair or foul? Especially if you’re a musician, you should be guided by the preamble to Section 107 and focus on traditional areas like “criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research.” Otherwise, be prepared to seek permission or at least the counsel of an experienced lawyer so that you don’t take a gamble on fair use and make schlimazels of your collaborators, commissioners, publishers, and presenters.

Do You Have The Chutzpah To Take A Gamble On Fair Use?

[Note: This is part one of a two-part article that was previously posted on NewMusicBox, a site for composers and fans of contemporary classical and other experimental music, on September 10, 2015.]

When I was a kid, my siblings and I played a board game called Chutzpah, which is a lot like Monopoly only the “properties” weren’t things like Boardwalk, Park Place, and Marvin Gardens but Son Marky’s Bar Mitzvah with Velvet Yarmulkes, Weekend in the Catskills, and Yacht Named Gevalt III. And rather than draw cards labeled Community Chest or Chance, you had four options: Schlemiel, Schlemazel, Chutzpah, and Do You Want to Take a Gamble. And instead of getting thrown in jail, you’d miss a turn if you landed on a “tsoris spot”—which is not the same as a tourist spot, I assure you!

For those of you who didn’t grow up in New York or laughing to Jewish comedians, here are brief explanations for these lovely Yiddish words. You’re at a dinner party and the guy next to you spills hot soup in your lap. The spiller is the schlemiel and you, the spillee, are the schlemazel. Tsoris means all manner of troubles, like getting the proverbial boil on your behind. And the concept of chutzpah (blandly translated as “guts” or “nerve” and more colorfully exemplified by variations on the theme of having a brass pair) is best illustrated with this classic example: a young man murders his parents and then pleads for mercy because he’s an orphan.

So, you wanna play? C’mon over to my place and I’ll break out the original 1967 edition. In the meantime, try your hand at the titular test, otherwise known as “Everything You’ve Heard about Fair Use is Probably Wrong.” It’s always a gamble as to whether something is or isn’t a fair use and, in my humble opinion, courts have recently shown a lot of chutzpah in making the determination.

Today’s “spot the fair use” game (not to be confused with “spot the looney”) consists of just two multiple choice questions:

1. How many of the following statements are true?

A) People have fair use rights.
B) There are specific rules on what is and isn’t a fair use.
C) Fair use determinations are governed by a particular provision of the Copyright Act.
D) Every determination of fair use must be made on a case-by-case basis.
E) Fair use is a defense to copyright infringement.

2. Assuming each example involves a use of a work still under copyright, which of the following constitutes fair use?

A) Reprinting or quoting four bars of music
B) Posting a 30-second clip of song or a movie on your web site
C) Putting only one line of a lyric on a T-shirt
D) Creating a painting that incorporates but modifies a pre-existing image
E) All of the above
F) None of the above
G) It depends

As for the first answer, the correct response is C, D and E. The answer to the second question is G. (That’s also the answer you’re most likely to get when you ask a lawyer a question, assuming he doesn’t first respond with two more questions.)

Now, in order to explain these answers, I’ll need to provide a little background with the caveat that, for true copyright mavens, my jaunt into the forest of fair use jurisprudence is kind of like the Classic Comics or Cliff’s Notes version of a copyright casebook.

Fair use was originally an English common law (case law) doctrine that was first incorporated into US law in the 1841 Supreme Court case Folsom v. Marsh. Writing for the Court, Justice Story (yes, that was his name) set forth a multi-factor test to determine fair use: “Look to the nature and objects of the selections made, the quantity and value of the materials used, and the degree in which the use may prejudice the sale, or diminish the profits, or supersede the objects, of the original work.” Ever since the current federal Copyright Law became effective in 1978, a restatement of Justice Story’s fair use test has been codified in Section 107 of the statute, which states:

Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 106 and 106A, fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include—

(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;

(2) the nature of the copyrighted work;

(3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and

(4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

The fact that a work is unpublished shall not itself bar a finding of fair use if such finding is made upon consideration of all the above factors.

So what do we learn from parsing the previous paragraph? First, fair use is governed by a specific statutory provision. Second, as the Supreme Court made clear in the 1994 case Campbell v. Acuff Rose Music (concerning 2 Live Crew’s parody of the Orbison classic, “Oh, Pretty Woman” and which I’ll be discussing in my next post), a determination of fair use involves the application and weighing of the four statutory factors and therefore “is not to be simplified with bright line rules, for the statute, like the doctrine it recognizes, calls for case by case analysis.” Third, as Judge Easterbrook reminded us in a case from last year, “[f]air use is a statutory defense to infringement.” It’s not a “right,” despite whatever Prof. Lessig and his acolytes may write. So there’s your answer to the first question.

Explaining the answer to the second question involves applying the foregoing factors to each situation, although in the interest of brevity, I won’t apply all four to each example.

A. Reprinting or quoting four bars of music

Let’s look at the third factor first. Which four bars are you using? Is it the main hook in the chorus of your favorite pop song or four measures of the verse? Or for a classical work, would you be using four bars of the iconic brass theme from Fanfare for the Common Man or a few measures from the percussion parts? Not all four measures of a work are of equal importance—especially in songs. Let’s also consider the first factor. Are you reprinting four measures from a Beatles song in a scholarly article on their use of modal harmonies or are you taking the title hook from She Loves You” and putting it in your own commercially released song (fourth factor as well)? In each example, the first use is more likely to be considered a fair use than the second.

B. Posting a 30-second clip of song or a movie on your web site

Again, considering the third factor, which thirty seconds are you using? It makes a difference whether you’re posting a critical “spoiler” scene from a newly released blockbuster (which also affects the fourth factor) as opposed to a clip from the official trailer which is intended for promotional purposes. Also, are you posting clips because you’re a fan of the band or the film and you’re linking to places where you can legitimately purchase the works or are you using these clips to link either to pirate sites or as a means to get eyeballs on your site to sell your own stuff? This involves consideration of the first and fourth factors.

C. Putting only one line of a lyric on a T-shirt

I’ll bet you can see where this is going: Which line—one from the chorus that includes the song’s title (although titles are not copyrightable) or a line from the middle of the third verse (third factor)? Are you selling these for profit or using them as an inspirational slogan to raise funds for a charity (first and fourth factors)?

D. Creating a painting that incorporates but modifies a pre-existing image

Okay, I’ll bet you’re getting pretty good at this game by now. Are you incorporating the entire image, the main focus of the image, or just something in the background of the image (third factor)? Are you incorporating a black and white photograph and adding color, changing the perspective, or distorting the image (second factor)? Are you selling your painting in a gallery or using it to demonstrate painting techniques to art students (first and fourth factors)?

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All of the foregoing are examples of the analysis that lawyers and judges use in determining whether an unauthorized use of a copyrighted work constitutes infringement or fair use, and none are definitively permissible. No simple bright-line rules; just an ad hoc analysis fudging the application of four statutory factors.

Now what if I said that everything I just told you is wrong (or at least not entirely right) because the courts had the chutzpah to change the rules of the game? And what if I also told you that fair use is far more narrowly applied to music than to any other art form? Would you still want to take a gamble that your usage of somebody else’s stuff isn’t infringing? Getting it wrong could bring you a lot of tsoris. So tune in next week when I discuss how the application of the concept of “transformative use” sometimes seems like a “parody” of traditional fair use analysis.

Copyright Conundrums for Collaborators

[Note: This article was previously posted on NewMusicBox, a site for creators and fans of contemporary classical and other experimental music, on September 3, 2015.]

Here’s a situation that’s commonly misunderstood among creative collaborators: Jack and Jill agree to write a song together. They call it “Tumblin’ Down the Hill.” Jack writes the music and Jill writes the lyrics. Who owns what?

A) Jack owns the music and Jill owns the lyrics.
B) It depends whether the music or the lyrics were written first.
C) Jack and Jill each own 50% of both the music and lyrics.
D) Neither Jack nor Jill owns the music or lyrics.

Some of you may be surprised to learn that the correct answer is C. (Hint: when in doubt, always pick C.) In the absence of a written agreement to the contrary, Jack and Jill each own 50% of both the music and the lyrics.

Now this may seem counterintuitive at first. How can Jill own part of the music when she didn’t write a note of it, and how can Jack own part of the lyrics when he didn’t pen a single word? The key is that Jack and Jill agreed to collaborate to write the song. As a result, they’ve created a “joint work” of authorship under copyright law.

Section 101 of the Copyright Act defines a “joint work” as follows:

A “joint work” is a work prepared by two or more authors with the intention that their contributions be merged into inseparable or interdependent parts of a unitary whole.

That’s what Jack and Jill did in our hypothetical. They prepared a work with the intention that Jack’s contribution (music) and Jill’s contribution (lyrics) be merged into inseparable or interdependent parts of a unitary whole (the song).

Moreover, ownership of the work, that is ownership of the copyright in the work, initially vests (i.e., is automatically granted to) the authors (i.e., the creators) of the work. Section 201 of the Copyright Act states in relevant part:

Initial Ownership. — Copyright in a work protected under this title vests initially in the author or authors of the work. The authors of a joint work are coowners of copyright in the work.

Absent a written agreement to the contrary, the creators of a joint work own that work in equal shares. So, if Jack and Jill collaborated on that song with John and Jane, each would own an undivided 25% interest in the copyright to the song.

Section 201(d) of the Copyright Act states that “[t]he ownership of a copyright may be transferred in whole or in part by any means of conveyance or by operation of law, and may be bequeathed by will or pass as personal property by the applicable laws of intestate succession.” A “conveyance,” other than a means of moving something from one place to another, is a fancy legal term for a written document. So if Jack and Jill want something other than a 50-50 split, they’ve got to put that in writing.

Some of you who are paying attention may have noticed the reference to an “undivided” interest in the copyright. If you’re wondering what that means, it’s the reason why Jack and Jill each own half of the words and music, even though they didn’t contribute to both parts of the song. Let me explain.

Copyrights, along with patents and trademarks (and a few other things) are often referred to as “intellectual property” or “intangible property.” And the laws for such non-physical property were developed from principles of law relating to tangible property like land (real property), which go back many hundreds of years.

Let’s say that instead of writing a song, Jack and Jill decide to buy a house. Now that “house” consists of the land that the house sits on, the front and back yards (yes, with shrubbery), and the building itself. Maybe it’s like the house I grew up in, a post-war split-level on a quarter acre in the ‘burbs. So, what do Jack and Jill own?

They are “joint tenants,” meaning they have an “undivided” interest in the property. Unless they’ve entered into some weird agreement, both Jack and Jill each have free and unfettered use (and joint ownership) of the whole house (not just the first or second floors) and also all of the front and back yards. So if Jack later sells his 50% interest in the house to June, he’s selling his 50% share in the whole thing, not just the second floor and the front yard, for example. That’s what we mean by an undivided interest in property.

“Joint” authors of a work own an undivided interest in the whole work, even if each author contributes only a discrete portion of the work. That’s why Jack and Jill each own 50% of both the words and music to the song they wrote together.

So, let’s say Jack and Jill have a hit on their hands. And unbeknownst to Jack, Jill gets an offer to license the song for use in a new blockbuster movie: The Franchised Five, Part Six. Under what circumstances can Jill do the deal?

A) She must get Jack’s permission and also pay him his fair share of the proceeds.
B) She doesn’t need to tell Jack jack and she can pocket all the dough.
C) She doesn’t need Jack’s permission but she still has to pay him his cut.
D) She can license only her 50% interest in the song.

O.K., you probably figured the answer is C. But how many of you thought it should be A or D? In the absence of an agreement to the contrary, Jack and Jill, having an undivided 50% interest in the song, can each license the whole song (words and music and not just their 50% interest), subject, however, to a duty to account to the other joint author(s) and pay them an amount equal to their interest in the work. So Jill doesn’t have to get Jack’s permission, but she still would need to pay him 50% of the license fee, corresponding to his 50% ownership in the song.

Now, let’s say someone does an instrumental cover of the song and that, too, becomes a hit. CDs and downloads are sold, and the instrumental version is performed live and is broadcast over the radio and streamed over the Internet. Who gets paid the mechanical royalties for the sales and downloads, and who gets paid for the public performances? I think you know the answer: Absent a written agreement to the contrary, both Jack and Jill, as writers of a “joint work” should both get paid. Similarly, both writers should get paid when just the lyrics to the song are re-printed.

I’m sure many of my clever readers can come up with all kinds of scenarios, like Jack licensing the song to McDonalds without Jill’s permission and Jill licensing the tune to Burger King without telling Jack. Since advertisers usually want some sort of exclusivity, it may be that both agreements would be valid, but both McDonalds and Burger King could sue our songwriters for breach of contract.

Parenthetically, what if, instead of collaborating on a new song with Jill, Jack wanted to write a song using a poem that Jill had previously published in a periodical? Since Jill’s poem is a separate, pre-existing work, Jack’s use of Jill’s poem would not constitute a joint work. And just as Jack would have to get permission to arrange Jennifer’s pre-existing orchestral piece for a ukulele quartet, he would need to get Jill’s permission to set her lyrics to music.

But getting back to our collaborating songwriters, we can see that there are many reasons (e.g., Jack is a genius musician but Jill’s a much better businessperson) that collaborators should have contracts to spell out who can do what and to whom. And they should consult an experienced lawyer to help identify and document all areas of concern.

Moreover, many collaboration (and music publishing) agreements state that each party separately administers his own share, meaning you’ve got to get everyone’s permission. And the collaboration issues get particularly tricky when you’re dealing with works like operas and musicals or performing groups like string quartets and new music ensembles. Perhaps that’s a topic for another post.

No, You Don’t Own Your Arrangement of That Hit Song

[Note: A slightly edited version of this post has been published in Vol.35, No.9 of The Licensing Journal (Wolters Kluwer, October 2015)]

A guitarist contacted me recently. He creates arrangements of popular songs and puts the PDFs of the music for sale on his website. The first thing I asked him is whether he got permission from the copyright owners of the songs to post his arrangements, being pretty sure he hadn’t. He was quite surprised and disappointed when I told him that what he was doing was flat-out illegal. So many well-meaning musicians still either don’t know about, or don’t understand the concept of, derivative works.

Section 101 of the Copyright Act defines a derivative work as follows:

A “derivative work” is a work based upon one or more preexisting works, such as a translation, musical arrangement, dramatization, fictionalization, motion picture version, sound recording, art reproduction, abridgment, condensation, or any other form in which a work may be recast, transformed, or adapted. A work consisting of editorial revisions, annotations, elaborations, or other modifications, which, as a whole, represent an original work of authorship, is a “derivative work”.

Note that “musical arrangement” is right near the top of the laundry list. And of course copyright mavens know that Section 106 sets forth the “bundle of rights” that a copyright owner possesses. These include the exclusive right to, or authorize others to, “prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work.”

So that means our guitarist, however well-intentioned, doesn’t “own” his arrangements of pop tunes and he can’t sell or even give away copies of them, whether they’re in the form of a lead sheet, guitar tabs, a fully scored chart or ancient runes – unless he gets permission from the copyright owner (More on that later).

But talking about derivative works and rights bundles of intangible property is kind of esoteric and doesn’t always convince wrongdoers of the error of their ways. So I’ll remind these folks that nobody would give a rodent’s posterior about “your” arrangement but for the fact that the song was written, recorded and made famous by someone else. So when you’re using somebody else’s music and trading off their art and good will, it’s only fair that you get their permission and give them a piece of the action.

But, my guitarist exclaimed, there’re all these other sites out there that do this – what about them? I explained that individual music publishers, as well as organizations like the Music Publishers Association, in conjunction with the National Music Publishers’ Association (yes, I know, it’s kind of like the People’s Front of Judea versus the Judean People’s Front for Life of Brian fans), have sent DMCA take down notices to many unlicensed sheet music, guitar tab and lyric sites. Simply because some infringing sites are still up doesn’t mean they won’t be taken down later or even sued for copyright infringement.

And as I’ll often explain, just because a rights holder doesn’t go after some infringers, it doesn’t mean they can’t go after you. It’s like complaining to the cop who pulls you over for speeding about all the other cars he could’ve pulled over and didn’t.

However, not “owning” an arrangement of a copyrighted musical work isn’t the end of the story. There are actually lots of things you can do without getting permission. For example, you can perform your version for your own amusement – or for that of your friends and relatives. Section 106 grants copyright owners only the exclusive right to public performances. That’s why it’s no infringement to sing in the shower – even if your private performances constitutes an aesthetic infraction. Copyright Act Section 101 defines a public performance as one at “a place open to the public or at any place where a substantial number of persons outside of a normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances is gathered.” The definition also includes broadcasts and streaming.

Our gutsy guitarist can even publicly perform his arrangement, provided the venue has licenses from the appropriate performing rights organizations (PROs), ASCAP, BMI and SESAC. PROs license venues to perform the songs in their respective repertoires and artists are free to perform their own renditions of the songs. So if our guitar guy gets a gig at a local club that’s properly licensed he’s good to go.

And our guitarist could even make and distribute a recording of his arrangement – provided that he gets a compulsory “mechanical” license under Section 115 of the Copyright Act or the equivalent either directly from the copyright owner(s), usually one or more music publishers, or The Harry Fox Agency (HFA). HFA is a clearinghouse many publishers use to issue mechanical licenses on their behalf. Since the license is compulsory, the copyright owner can’t say “no” so long as the recording artist (i.e., guitar guy), pays the statutory royalties, currently 9.1 cents per unit distributed for a recording of a song that’s five minutes or less.

The Section 115 license specifically allows artists doing cover recordings to record their own arrangements of the work:

A compulsory license includes the privilege of making a musical arrangement of the work to the extent necessary to conform it to the style or manner of interpretation of the performance involved, but the arrangement shall not change the basic melody or fundamental character of the work, and shall not be subject to protection as a derivative work under this title, except with the express consent of the copyright owner.

Minor variations in the melody are generally OK. As for what constitutes a change in the “fundamental character” of the song, that’s not clear except that it’s well established that you can’t change lyrics without permission.

However, the compulsory mechanical license only applies to audio-only recordings like CDs and MP3s. Our gutsy guitarist still couldn’t legally post a video of his performance or use his arrangement of the song in a movie, TV show, video game or other audio-visual work unless he got permission from the owner of the arranged song to do so. That permission is called “synchronization” or “synch” license, since you’re synching sound to picture. YouTube does have synch deals with some, but by no means all, of the music publishers.

But what if our guitarist actually wanted to get permission to print and distribute his arrangement of the song? He would need to contact the music publisher(s) of the work for permission. ASCAP, BMI and SESAC all have searchable databases and if you put in the title of the song you can usually find out who controls the rights to it as well as contact information for the publishers listed.

Armed with that information, our intrepid guitarist should then send a request, including a copy of the arrangement, to the “permissions” or “business affairs” department of the publisher who has the right to say yea or nay and to set the terms for the license to arrange. The process for getting a synch license (or clearing a sample, or reprinting lyrics) is much the same as getting permission to arrange. Find the publisher(s) on the PRO databases, and send a written request to the “business affairs” or “licensing” department explaining what you want to do and how much of the work you intend to use.

So in sum, while there are some things you can’t do without permission (e.g., sell sheet music or post videos), there’s still a lot you can do legally with an arrangement of a song – even though you don’t “own” it.

What’s Next for ASCAP and BMI as SESAC Buys The Harry Fox Agency?

A lot of people are wondering what it means for the music industry since it was reported that the National Music Publishers Association (NMPA), the leading trade organization for US music publishers, has sold its wholly-owned mechanical licensing subsidiary, The Harry Fox Agency, Inc. (HFA) to SESAC, Inc., the smallest of the three domestic music performing rights organizations (PROs). While I don’t have a crystal ball, I suspect that this strategic acquisition is part of the trend to transform PROs from mere licensors of performing rights to broader music rights and data mining clearing houses.

Published reports in Billboard and elsewhere state that SESAC’s winning bid of about $20 million over others, including PROs, BMI and SOCAN, was the culmination of a process that began a year ago when NMPA put HFA up for sale. As to why BMI, but not ASCAP was a bidder, it may have to do with the Consent Decrees under which the two organizations have operated for decades.

ASCAP’s Consent Decree (last amended in 2001) and BMI’s Consent Decree (last amended in 1994) are similar but far from identical. Specifically, under Article IV(A) of its Consent Decree, the only music right ASCAP is permitted to license is the  public performing right (although it can also serve as an agent to collect royalties from the sale of blank digital audio tape). BMI, under Section IV(B) of its Consent Decree is only specifically precluded from being a record label or a record or sheet music distributor.

That said, until recently, BMI traditionally refrained from entering other aspects of the music business, such as mechanical (songs used in audio-only recordings) and synchronization (songs used in audio-visual use in film, TV, video, etc.) licensing out of concern that the Department of Justice (DOJ) would seek to impose more stringent restrictions. However, this is one instance where the Internet really has changed everything, with ASCAP and BMI welcoming the ongoing DOJ review.

The revenue for licensed digital performances (e.g., streaming) is growing and the online environment knows no geographic boundaries. So while the traditional analysis focused on competition for domestic public performing rights among the three US PROs, foreign PROs, which often bundle performance and mechanical rights, have been creating competitive transnational alliances. And, as extensively discussed in the Copyright Office’s Music Licensing Report earlier this year, the major publishers (which are free to bundle all music rights) sought to withdraw digital performance rights from ASCAP and BMI because they felt Consent Decree and other legal restrictions (i.e., de facto compulsory licensing and statutory rate setting standards) artificially suppressed the fees these PROs could obtain from licensees such as streaming services.

However, the judges that oversee the ASCAP and BMI Consent Decrees held that such “partial withdrawals” were invalid. So, among other things, ASCAP and BMI are seeking modification of their Consent Decrees to allow partial withdrawal of digital rights and the bundling of various music licenses (e.g., performance, mechanical and synchronization). The Copyright Office Report supports relaxing the Consent Decree restrictions as well as amending the Copyright Act to have all licenses that are set by a tribunal (whether Rate Court or the Copyright Royalty Board) to be determined on a willing buyer/seller standard.

Conventional wisdom holds that DOJ is likely to relax ASCAP and BMI’s Consent Decree restrictions. SESAC doesn’t have a Consent Decree but has been subject to anti-competition litigation. What this means for the PROs is far from secret. Last year, at a public forum held by the Association of Independent Music Publishers (AIMP), the CEOs of the three PROs shared the stage and their thoughts about the future of their businesses. All three agreed that the future for the PROs is to offer efficient one-stop licensing for music users who often require several distinct music rights, including mechanicals currently offered by HFA (and music publishers who don’t license through HFA), synch rights which are controlled by each individual publisher, and even performing rights in sound recordings (currently licensed by SoundExchange), especially if such performing rights are statutorily extended to radio broadcasts, as endorsed in the Copyright Office’s Music Licensing Report. Indeed, the Report recommends that the PROs and other licensing collectives morph into broader “music rights organizations” (MROs).

And while SESAC is principally owned by a private equity firm, BMI probably had more than $20 million in its war chest to offer NMPA but didn’t. Why? ASCAP and BMI together represent north of 90% of US songwriters and music publishers. With HFA going to SESAC, that shifts the domestic competitive landscape, giving even more reason for DOJ to relax Consent Decree restrictions, which is probably more valuable to BMI. Moreover, even with mechanical income falling to about 21% of music publishing income from about double that at the peak of the CD market (and with overheads staying static or increasing due to processing millions of micro-payments, reason enough for NMPA to sell), the data HFA has regarding the 48,000 publishers it represents and the 6.7 million musical works it’s licensed on 21.4 million recordings, is probably more valuable to the much smaller SESAC than to BMI.

So what happens now? First, I don’t see SESAC significantly trying to grow its market share as a PRO. Their business model in that arena will likely continue to be, as it states on its web site, “a selective organization, taking pride in having a repertory based on quality, rather than quantity.” So I don’t see SESAC courting writers and publishers in a more concerted manner although adding HFA may make them a more viable alternative to ASCAP and BMI. In fact, I don’t foresee significant changes in writer-publisher relations at any of the three PROs.

Rather, I think that the game plan for all three PROs is what SESAC states in the news release posted on its web site:

SESAC’s acquisition of HFA is part of a previously announced strategy under its new leadership team to pursue a simplified and more efficient, multi-right, multi-territory licensing model utilizing an ongoing focus on information technology and data science to meet the developing needs of music users, distributors, writers, composers, publishers and other stakeholders. The transaction enables SESAC to enhance value by offering music streaming and other digital platforms greater efficiency and transparency in the music licensing process, thereby delivering better monetization outcomes for its affiliated writer and publisher clients.

As much bigger companies, ASCAP and BMI already have plenty of data, even without adding HFA’s to the mix. And reading between the lines (as was hinted at by the three CEOs at last year’s AIMP forum), lies the ancillary and potentially very lucrative business of mining, packaging and selling the vast stores of data the PROs collect to entities both inside and outside of the music industry, thus taking a page from the Google and Facebook playbooks.

If the ASCAP and BMI Consent Decrees are relaxed, then all three PROs can more freely pursue diversified business strategies. This could lead to higher performance royalties to writers and publishers through both more competitive negotiations and, by leveraging the data they collect, lower overheads – but potentially at the cost of control of “proprietary” information and transparency if the PROs expand beyond core music licensing businesses.

And there is also the risk that HFA, now to be owned by a for-profit privately held business as opposed to a trade organization controlled by its member music publishers, may impose higher tolls to access data and could potentially lead to less, rather than greater industry-wide licensing transparency. But the likelihood of this occurring will be diminished if ASCAP and BMI offer mechanical and other forms of licensing. And I don’t think SESAC will have HFA cease licensing ASCAP and BMI composers. That would be a bad business move, especially since SESAC will want to maintain as much current music data as possible.

Anyway, that’s how I see it. That said, the only certainty about the music business is that it’s always unpredictable.

Update: 14 September 2015:

It’s now been reported that the sale of HFA to SESAC has been approved by the NMPA Board and membership. The sale is now complete and SESAC now officially owns HFA.

Update: 1 October 2015:

It’s now been reported, quoting SESAC’s CEO, that up to 30% of HFA employees are being let go because of what is euphemistically called in HR-speak, “redundancies” between the SESAC and HFA staffs.