Thursday, March 14, 2013

Wants to Publish "Digger" Cover Songs

Female digger by Van Gogh
Dear Rich: I saw your post about changed song lyrics and I had a question which takes a step in a different direction. I have sung lots of songs with my young son about diggers, one of his obsessions. They are set to popular tunes, with the lyrics all or mostly changed. I think it would make a good book for children. Would my lyrics changes be considered a parody, like Weird Al Yankovic, and thus be free to be printed? Or because I am not recording or performing these songs would these songs be exempt? Most of the tunes I am using are from before 1922, traditional children's tunes like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star which changes into Twinkle Twinkle Little Truck (... How I wonder if you're stuck etc) However I have several songs that are after 1922, for example -- "The Digger Game" (Digger Digger Bo Bigger, Banana Fanna Fo Figger... set to the tune of The Name Game) or "You Say Excavator, I Say Digger" (set to the tune of Let's Call The Whole Thing Off). If you do not have time to answer, would you recommend a lawyer? Do intellectual property lawyers exist in every city? We noticed that you live in Canada so we'll preface this by explaining that our answer is based on U.S. copyright law which is fairly similar to Canadian law, but not exactly. For example, Canada does not have fair use, it has "fair dealing," a slightly more restrictive concept that does not excuse parodies. Not that we're sure that your lyrics are parodies (some argue that a parody of a song makes fun of the underlying subject matter), and in any case not all such parodies are okay under fair use principles (Weird Al Yankovic pays for the right to rewrite the lyrics -- this article provides more details).
Your book. Just so we're clear ... you plan to offer a book with new "digger lyrics" for existing songs. For example, you would state, "Sing these lyrics to Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" and then include your new lyrics but not the musical notation or original lyrics, right? You are definitely okay to do so with any songs published in the U.S. before 1923 or any that otherwise fall into the public domain for other reasons. We think you'll be okay with non-public domain songs, too, but we can't guarantee safe passage. That's because lyrics are separately copyrightable and if you're borrowing too much from the originals, you would create an infringing derivative. That said, we kind of doubt that the copyright owners are going to care enough to do something about this project so we're inclined to think you can proceed as planned.
Do intellectual property lawyers exist in every city? Probably, check one of the many Canadian legal directories (type "canada legal directory" into your search engine).

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