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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. [2017 update: a colleague contacted me regarding reliance upon PRO licenses for orchestral arrangements, as opposed to those performed just by members of a cover or tribute band. Even assuming the public performances are covered (and the ASCAP license has a specific restriction), the creation, copying and distribution of the sheet music to this derivative work to hired musicians would, as discussed below, require permission from the copyright owner, i.e., the music publisher.]

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.

Happy Birthday, You’re Sued!

The mere filing of a copyright case doesn’t usually make a major splash in the media but when it involves the most performed song in the world, even The New York Times takes notice.  Apparently, filmmaker, Jennifer Nelson, was making a documentary about the song, “Happy Birthday to You” and didn’t like the idea that Warner/Chappell Music insisted on her taking a $1500 license to use the song in the film as she – and probably most people – think it’s in the public domain.  So yesterday, Ms. Nelson filed a birthday suit of sorts: an action in federal court seeking a declaratory judgment that the song is, in fact, in the public domain and no permission is needed to use it.

So, in little more than the time it takes to sing the song, I’m going to use it as a way to review a few basic copyright law principles that are sometimes misunderstood. Let the questions begin!

What is the public domain? The public domain is the body of works, music, novels, plays, texts, etc., that is no longer (or never was) protected by copyright and is therefore free for anyone to use or adapt.

When is a song in the public domain? As they say in Facebook status land, “it’s complicated.”  For songs written since 1978, a U.S. copyright lasts for the life of the author (or last surviving author if there’s more than one) plus seventy years. If there’s no author, such as a work-for-hire, the term is 95 years. For older works, the U.S. used to have a system of an initial term and then the copyright had to be renewed for, you guessed it, the “renewal term.” For these older copyrights, the initial term was 28 years and the renewal term, through various extensions, was increased to 67 years, for a total of 95 years.  There’s more to it than this, but basically, if a work was written prior to 1923, it’s most likely in the public domain here. Maybe you’re thinking that’s an awfully long time when the Constitution says that copyrights are supposed to be “for limited times.” Larry Lessig thought so when he challenged the 1998 Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act but the U.S. Supreme Court strongly disagreed.

Do I need to get a license to sing “Happy Birthday to You” to my kid at my backyard barbecue? Even assuming the song is still under copyright – and as we’ll soon see that’s a big assumption – the answer is still “no.” U.S. Copyright law gives copyright owners a certain bundle of rights. Among them is the exclusive right to authorize “public performances.” A backyard barbecue, a birthday party in your basement and most other gatherings among “a normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances” is a private performance for which no permission is needed.

What if I sing the song at a gig or at a party of 500 of my closest friends and acquaintances? You’re probably safe to sing the song – or any other copyrighted song. Most public venues where music is performed (concert and catering halls, clubs and stadiums) or broadcast (TV and radio stations) have licenses from “performing rights organizations” such as ASCAP, BMI and SESAC. These companies issue “blanket” licenses to venues and broadcasters (and web sites, too) which allow the licensee to perform all the works in their respective repertories as much as they want.

Why would a filmmaker need a license? The permission that Warner/Chappell sought from Ms. Nelson for her film is known as a “synchronization” or “synch” license because the user is synchronizing music to picture. Whenever a pre-existing copyrighted song is used in any audio-visual work, such as a film, TV show, TV ad or videogame, a synchronization license is required from the copyright owner, usually a music publisher. If you’re using pre-recorded music, then you need permission from both the music publisher of the song and the copyright owner of the recording, typically a record label.

What if I post a video of my kid dancing to a Justin Bieber song? Putting aside issues of taste, technically, you’d need synch licenses from the music publisher(s) of the song and from The Bieb’s label although the actual performance of the video may be covered if the site has licenses from the performing rights organizations. As a practical matter, unless your home video is generating millions of views or you’re selling truckloads of DVDs it’s unlikely that anyone will come after you for a technical violation.

So, is “Happy Birthday to You” in the public domain? That’s for the court to decide, but if the facts are as alleged in the complaint and as cited in the  news reports and elsewhere, it seems that the song would be “PD” as we music types say.  The melody is said to come from a song called “Good Morning to All” written in 1893 and, the combination of music and lyrics is said to have appeared in print in 1912, possibly earlier. By my reckoning, if these are the facts, both 1912 and 1893 are prior to 1923. At least one legal scholar, Richard Brauneis, has written a 68-page article (with 320 footnotes!) in which he concludes that the song is in the public domain.

How can Warner / Chappell claim the song is still under copyright? Again, the facts will play out in the lawsuit, but it seems that W/C has a 1935 copyright registration, crediting different writers as the creators of the song. The complaint alleges that this registration is for a piano /vocal arrangement of the song.  Another of the things in the “bundle of rights” a copyright owner gets is the right to make a “derivative work” of the underlying work, such as an arrangement or adaptation. Turning a novel into a film constitutes making a derivative work, which is why the novelist gets paid when the film is made.

For example, the song “Simple Gifts” is a Shaker hymn from the nineteenth century.  Most people know it from Aaron Copland’s arrangement of the tune in his ballet, “Appalachian Spring.” As the original song is PD, anyone can perform the original melody and lyrics or make their own arrangement. But, if you want to use Mr. Copland’s treatment of the work you’ll need permission from Copland’s publisher, Boosey & Hawkes.  So, if the underlying song, “Happy Birthday to You” turns out to be in the public domain, anyone can use it and make their own arrangement of it, as long as they don’t use any particular copyrighted arrangement of the work, such as ones owned by Warner / Chappell.  And, of course, you can write a new song, with your own melody and lyrics, and call it “Happy Birthday to You” as titles are not copyrightable.