On Presidents, Copyright and a King

As we all know, today was the ceremonial inauguration of Barack Obama for his second term as President (although the official one was yesterday). Many have pointed out how fitting that the inaugural of our first African American President would occur on the day honoring Martin Luther King, Jr.   But while Mr. Obama took the oath of office on one of Dr. King’s personal bibles and alluded to his ideals, the President did not choose to quote Dr. King as he did the Declaration of Independence.

And what if someone wanted to make an artistic statement quoting speeches by President Obama or Dr. King? Anyone who may be inspired to incorporate any of President Obama’s speech it into a musical or other creative work should not have any difficulty doing so. Section 105 of the Copyright Act states  “[c]opyright protection under this title is not available for any work of the United States Government.” Section 101 defines a “work of the United States Government” as “ a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties.”  Certainly, the President is an officer of the United States Government. And while the  Constitution doesn’t require the President to deliver an inaugural address (unlike the State of the Union address), every President since Washington has done so.

However, many would be surprised that Dr. King’s very publicly delivered “I Have a Dream” speech is protected by copyright and has been registered in the U.S. Copyright Office. And while Dr. King, like President Obama, was a public figure who delivered many noteworthy speeches, he was not a government officer or employee. As with every other private citizen, Dr. King (or his estate) was entitled to obtain copyright protection for the fruits of his creative labors.

Now, I’m not suggesting that the President chose not to quote Dr. King because of copyright considerations.  A small quotation, along the lines of what Mr. Obama used from the Declaration of Independence would undoubtedly have constituted fair use.  But it would be a different matter altogether if someone wanted to incorporate Dr. King’s speech in musical composition or other artistic work.

And while quoting from most government documents probably won’t make for great artistic achievement (although John Adams did try with “Doctor Atomic”), some Presidential utterances are worth remembering.   So, feel free to liberally quote President Obama’s inaugural address – or those of Presidents Reagan or either Bush if you’re so politically inclined (although you may still need to get permission for any audio or video recordings of them), but be careful  when dealing with the public speeches of private citizens.  If you want to use portions of the “I Have a Dream” speech or any of Dr. King’s other well-known (and copyrighted) works, in your own creative endeavors you will probably need to obtain permission – a topic I’ve previously written about.

Composing for Orchestras and Other Ensembles, Part 1: Getting the Gig

Have you ever wanted to write a symphony, a tone poem for wind ensemble or an opera? Knowing something about orchestration certainly helps. But you should also know a bit about the business of writing these kinds of works, which like great music in any genre, has its unique twists and turns. Pulitzer-Prize winners like John Adams, George Crumb, John Harbison, Jennifer Higdon, Steve Reich and Christopher Rouse don’t simply sit down to write a 20-minute concerto on spec.

These composers are commissioned to write new works. And it’s not just a handful of Pulitzer Prizers and ivory-tower academics that get gigs to write works for string quartet, percussion ensemble or choir. Jazz musicians like Billy Childs, Chick Corea, Paquito D’Rivera, Wynton Marsalis and Brad Mehldau have also gotten commissions to write concert works and there are many rock-oriented writers who’ve crossed over as well. So whether you’ve got a doctorate from Juilliard or are just a graduate of Mom & Dad’s garage, you, too could be commissioned to write new music if you’ve got the talent and desire to pursue it.

Major symphony orchestras, opera companies like the Metropolitan Opera and Houston Grand Opera as well as presenters like Carnegie Hall commission new works. But smaller, regional orchestras, opera companies and venues also do so and are sometimes more willing to take a risk on a lesser-known composer. Conservatories also commission works for their wind ensembles and the fees they pay rival those paid by major orchestras. Individual patrons, from billionaires to your local dentist or fast food franchisee, also commission pieces.

Now you’re thinking, “How do I get me one of them commission gigs?” Classical publishers like Boosey & Hawkes and G. Schirmer have Composers & Repertoire departments with trained professionals who seek new commissions for their composers. However, organizations like New Music USA (which formed as a result of the merger of Meet the Composer and the American Music Center), which has an excellent, free guide to the commissioning process and the American Composers Forum  offer resources to assist the self-published composer.  Some organizations like Chamber Music America offer grants to classical and jazz composers to write new works. The friendly folks in ASCAP”s concert music department and BMI’s classical department can also provide guidance.

So, how much can you get paid to write that concerto for electric guitar and orchestra? The fee depends upon several factors, including the status and experience of the composer, the length of the piece and the instrumentation. A five-minute piece for sax quartet and vibes by someone straight out of Berklee won’t command as high a fee than a work for full orchestra written by a living legend like Elliott Carter shortly before his 103rd birthday.

Assuming you’re neither a novice nor a superstar, you might get paid around $2,000 for a five-minute work for voice and piano. A work for a handful of musicians that’s less than 10 minutes long might garner a fee in the range of $7,500, while that 20-minute concerto for electric guitar and orchestra might get you somewhere in the range of $30,000 or more. If you’re lucky enough to be asked to write a full-length opera for a major opera company, you could be paid well into six figures, while a one-act for a small company may get you something in the range of the fee for that guitar concerto.

Finding a patron and agreeing on the type of work and the fee is just the beginning of the process. In Part II, I’ll discuss the major deal points as well as some pitfalls to avoid.

An earlier version of this article was published in BMI’s Songwriter 101 site on July 28, 2010.