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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.

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.