Thursday, February 16, 2012

Changed Song Lyrics: Can I Record It?


Dear Rich: I'm curious how I can copyright a song where I used an existing song and while I changed most of the words I did not change the music. The meaning is entirely different but I'm sure I can't legally record the song without consequences. Based on your web article "How to Obtain Sample Clearance" it sounds like there is no chance for me to legally sell my version of the song if the copyright owner or artist/songwriter doesn't grant permission. The chances of me making a lot of money are slim but I'm happy to pay some type of royalty or percentage of revenue in the event it is successful. Sometimes there's gold in those changed lyrics. When Ken Darby changed the lyrics to Aura Lee (a public domain song), the result -- Love Me Tender -- became a monster hit for Elvis Presley. If you're wondering why that song is credited to Presley and Vera Matson, Darby's wife, that's because Presley demanded co-writing credit for many songs he recorded regardless of whether he actually wrote them. When asked why Darby credited his wife instead of himself, he supposedly replied, "Because she didn't write it either."
Right, you had a question. You asked how you can copyright a pre-existing song whose lyrics you have modified. We suppose you could file a Form CO, claim authorship of the lyrics and then, in section 4 (Limitation of Copyright), state that you are not claiming any copyright to the pre-existing material (name the song and provide its copyright registration number). Doing that won't really gain much for you because you still can't perform or record the song without the permission of the underlying song owners. So, we'd recommend scratching that strategy.
How can you record the modified song without being sued? We think that's the real question you're asking. Under copyright law, you need to seek permission from the song owner to record it if you materially alter the song. We doubt whether a publisher is going to grant permission to modify lyrics to a song, although it's always possible. (By the way, none of this has anything to do with sample clearance.) Of course, if you hadn't materially altered the lyrics, you wouldn't need to ask for permission, you could simply pay a fee to a service such as Songfile (Harry Fox) or Limelight, and obtain a compulsory license. Knowing this, some musicians use a halfway measure -- they pay for the compulsory license and use their modified version of the song. Even though that doesn't meet the standards of copyright law, the thinking is that by paying for the license, the musician demonstrates good faith and hopefully, the song owner won't care to hassle those who pay for licenses.