Monday, June 4, 2012

When Does a Version of a Song Qualify as Fair Use?

Dear Rich: I am working on a tribute album and I'm trying to figure out the distinction between derivative works and transformative fair use.  At what point is a song transformative enough to be considered fair use, vs. a derivative work? And how can I use this knowledge to negotiate with publishing companies, prior to recording/selling and performing the songs? If I am not given permission to create or sell a derivative work and I only perform them live, what is the risk and potential liability of infringement? Sorry, we would have gotten to your questions sooner except we've been obsessed with creating animated GIFs ever since Photoshop Elements 10 arrived (finally, you can change the timing on the animation). We expect to get over it soon, and yes, we know they're annoying to watch. 
Right, you had a question. If you're doing a tribute album, we assume you're doing cover versions of existing songs and that it is a "tribute" to a band or performer. There are two legal rules at work here.

  • Compulsory license. First, under Section 115A of the Copyright Act, a music publisher must permit you to record any song that has previously been recorded and released to the public. However, you cannot use the compulsory (mechanical) license if you change the basic melody or fundamental character of the song. For example, a singer cannot alter a song’s lyrics without permission. That said, many people change elements of songs without a problem (as we mentioned in this previous entry).
  • Derivatives and fair use. A derivative work is one that is based upon or modifies an existing work. A fair use is when an existing work is used in such way that a court, balancing four fair use factors determines that permission is not required. The transformative quality of the work is an important factor but so is another factor -- the amount and substantiality of the portion taken. In most music cases where fair use is found it's because a relatively short segment of the original work is used. We don't think providing a full-length cover of a song will qualify as a fair use -- even if it is as transformative as this.

The "So What" Issue. Even if you believe you have a strong fair use argument, a music publisher is likely to respond, "so what?" Only a court -- not you or your lawyer -- can verify that it is a fair use, so a publisher is unlikely to feel pressured to grant permission based on your arguments. What you might wish to consider --  although this advice is contrary to Section115A --  is to simply pay the mechanical license fees even though you have modified the songs. Our experience is that most publishers just want to be compensated and don't want to have to deal with special permissions. As for performing the songs live -- any venue where you play will have to pay performing rights fees for each song -- so it is unlikely that music publishers will care about your version just as long as the song title is correct.

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