Question about copyright law

Sitting on the back porch this afternoon enjoying a Cuba Libre, I started coming up with new lyrics to famous TV themes. In all modesty, I must say my versions were not half bad; this led me to consider copyrighting them and putting them on the market.

My questions is, Are there any restrictions on this? What about if I change the “shape” of the melody by “adding extra beats,” as one composer accused his producer of doing? Does the composer of the melody have any say as to the **lyrics **of a piece? Or, does the composer of the melody and the official lyrics have any say about alternate versions?

I cite the Hawaii Five-O theme as an example: Morton Stevens composed it, but there are at least two versions of the lyrics, one recorded by Don Ho and the other by Sammy Davis, Jr. So far as I know, there is no “official” version written by Stevens or anyone else.

With respect to the Star Trek theme, Alexander Courage’s nose was put hugely out of joint when Gene Roddenberry penned lyrics to it (the theme, not his nose; which, SFAIC, he had every right to do) and consequently received 50% of the residuals each time it was played. Would my new lyrics, if performed, cut into someone else’s royalties? :dubious:

What do you mean by “putting them on the market”? Are you talking about publishing the new lyrics (as text) with the words “Sung to the tune of…”? Or are you talking about making and selling recordings? Or what?

Basically this, maybe offering them to different artists to record.

How did Don and Sammy come by their “alternate” versions of Five-O?

I’m in no way qualified to record anything myself. :frowning:

If you do a “sung to the tune of”, copyright isn’t a problem. Mad Magazine won a court case that allows you to do so freely.

If you want to perform it, standard ASCAP fees apply.

… Which means I’d have to be a member of the union/guild/whatever, right?

I think we can dismiss this possibility, unless we’re talking about an audition tape.

How would royalties work, then? Do I get 100% each time the song is performed, or do I split them with the composer of the melody?

I don’t think it’s that simple. The MAD case fell under parody thus not a copyright violation.

I going to mention this. Parody is considered fair use.

Huh. Does that mean that Weird Al doesn’t have to pay a nickel to perform parody versions of songs, so long as they are parody versions?

(And, if so, that whoever did the original version can’t perform Weird Al’s version, without paying Weird Al for the privilege?)

True. If it’s not a parody, you need explicit permission to alter the words or the melody significantly. Even if it is a parody, you need permission to split the royalty, which is one of the two reasons Weird Al give for always getting permission (the other being that he prefers to not make the artists he parodies mad at him). Otherwise the original composer gets the royalties.

In the case of MAD there were no recordings. Just a set of lyrics with a note that they could be sung to the tune of [song name].

If your lyrics are really good, you should consider teaming up with a composer to create a totally original song. Just keep in mind that there are a lot of talented songwriters out there struggling to sell their songs, so you’ll need a lot of work, persistence, and luck.

Creating new lyrics (or alternate lyrics) to a song is creating a derivative work. US copyright law, 17 U.S. Code § 106(2), gives exclusive rights to prepare derivative works to the owner of the copyright.

ASCAP cannot give you permission to create or perform a derivative work. That is not within the scope of its business. You have to go to the owner of the copyright (usually the publisher) and obtain permission to create the work. Your agreement with the copyright owner should include how the royalties are to be split.

You cannot simply go to a public place and perform a copyright-infringing song just because they have an ASCAP license. The ASCAP license does not cover copyright infringement.

Right, he doesn’t need to. However, he chooses to because it preserves good relations with other artists. Most of them have considered themselves flattered when Weird Al has done one of their songs. The Knack helped him get his first recording contract for his parody My Bologna. Rick Derringer produced several of his albums. In fact, some artists such as Mark Knopfler and Greg Kihn have even agreed to perform on Weird Al’s parodies. Also, by giving credit to the original songwriters, they share in the royalties from Weird Al’s recordings.

That is debatable.

Too many people on the internet think that the “parody exception” means that you can write funny lyrics to an existing song and that is OK.

“Parody” in the copyright context is not just funny lyrics. The parody exception derives from 17 U.S.C. § 107 which allows fair use, under certain conditions, “for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research…”

In Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, 510 U.S. 569 (1994), the US Supreme Court held “The heart of any parodist’s claim to quote from existing material is the use of some elements of a prior author’s composition to create a new one that, at least in part, comments on that author’s work… If, on the contrary, the commentary has no critical bearing on the substance or style of the original composition, which the alleged infringer merely uses to get attention or to avoid the drudgery in working up something fresh, the claim to fairness in borrowing from another’s work diminishes accordingly (if it does not vanish), and other factors, like the extent of its commerciality, loom larger.”

Although Weird Al’s P.R. people have given him a speech to repeat about musicians all being one big brotherhood happily working with one another, I seriously doubt that much of his work would fall under the parody exception.

I think it’s that he doesn’t have to ask for permission, not that he doesn’t have to pay royalties. I know parody isn’t the same as straight up cover songs. But I could go make a CD of cover songs and not ask anyone for permission and send money to Harry Fox or whoever. As you said at the end there, the songwriters get credits and royalties. I would think that even if he changed the lyrics completely, if he still used the same underlying music that’s 50%. That’s why Stevie Wonder is listed as a writer on “Amish Paradise,” for example.

But there is a specific provision of the copyright law, 17 USC § 115, that provides compulsory licensing for “phonorecords” of cover versions. There is no similar provision that provides for compulsory licensing of derivative works.

I hasten to add that “fair use” in the US is much broader than “fair dealing” in Anglo-Commonwealth jurisdictions, leaving the plaintiff to forum shop…

Fordham Intellectual Property, Media and Entertainment Law Journal
Stranger in Parodies: Weird Al and the Law of Musical Satire
Charles J. Sanders/ Steven R. Gordon

As I said earlier, his “I really don’t have to get permission to do it, but I do it anyway because I’m such a nice guy” is just an act dreamed up by his image consultants.

No. It means you (or, more likely, the venue where you’re doing the public performance) has to pay the fee. But you don’t have to join.

Great. You can put them up against the work of the other 500 million people who come up with parody versions of songs and share that pool of zero dollars people are willing to pay for them. (The one exception being Weird Al, as already mentioned.)

Michael Franti seems to do this a lot. His songs aren’t even parodies he just changed the words.