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Permission to Arrange vs Mechanical License

I've seen a few recent threads on Permission to Arrange (PTA) licenses. It seems like the consensus is that we have to ask the original artist for permission before arranging their music. 
But I just read this article about Songfile ( and they say cover artists just need to pay for the mechanical license. Please see the article for specifics.
Can someone explain the difference between the PTA license and the mechanical license, please?
Thank you,
Replies (8): Threaded | Chronological
on October 7, 2013 1:29pm
You need a mechanical license if, for example, you're going to put a piece on a CD, duplicate the disk and sell them. When the article says you don't need an additional license for a "straight cover," I think they're talking about someone singing a song pretty much the same way as the original artist. But if you're going to take a pop song (or any original composition) and write an arrangement of it for your chorus, or any ensemble, that deviates from the original nature of the piece, you need to get permission to make that arrangement. 
If these laws were actually enforced, virtually all contemporary a cappella groups would go out of business, because hardly any of them bother to get permission (or even try) before they write their own arrangements of popular songs. 
Some in the a cappella world say that artists give tacet approval to these "knock off" arrangements, because it helps the original song become better known. But the law's the law, and if it's not working, it should be changed. Someday, someone will want to make an example of a group performing illegal arrangements, and, as we've seen in the Kinko's and Napster suits, the fines can be hefty.
on October 8, 2013 7:15am
Everything Frank says is spot on. The only additional piece of information that I can offer is something that a licensing rep from a big publisher told me. You can cover a song, either in performance or on CD, without a PTA, but you do have to pay mechanicals for the recorded version. If you write something down on paper, that's considered an arrangement, and you have to seek permission for that. So, if a group learns a song by rote, off of the original recording, and nothing is written down, then that's considered a cover. But if you create any kind of sheet music for the song, it's considered an arrangement.

on October 8, 2013 7:30am
Before I get to my main point, to anyone that wants to make an arrangement, getting permission may be a long process & you should start working at least 6 months prior to a performance to get the permission. Any group that wants to do this should have money budgeted for this & that needs to include the fee for the rights to arrange, the arranger's fee & copying costs. And one more thought, if you think you'll be using the arrangement for more than one particular performance, you should ask for the rights in perpituity.
Now, on to the main point. I need to take exception a couple of comments in this thread. We've had several arrangements written for our a cappella choir (in our 12th season) so I have some experience with the process.
The first is that the consensus is that the original artist needs to be asked for permission before arranging. That is not entirely accurate. Our experience has been that if you are arranging previously  published music (i.e. a solo) for choir, the request for permission should initially be directed to the copyright holder, usually listed at the bottom of the first page of the music. Some publishers have a link to request a permission to arrange on their websites, especially in the case where the original copyright holder is out of business or has been absorbed by another organization. The copyright holder & the composer &/or original artist are often not the same party & it's likely that you will be directed to another organization. I'm sorry to say that if you want to arrange a Sondheim tune, you are not going to get to speak to Mr. Sondheim. In the case of the Sondheim tune that we had arranged, "Another Hundred People," we were directed to several different organizations before actually getting the permission to arrange. We've also recently had an arrangement of a piece written that was only recorded but never published in print. In that case, I tracked down a representative of the composers via a FB page, who in turn redirected me to the company holding the rights to the music. Thank goodness for social media.
The second is the comment that hardly any contemporary groups get permission to write arrangements. While we are not a "contemporary" group but rather more of a traditional a cappella choir, we always make sure that we have permission for an arrangement before performing it. It takes some effort, & can be a hassle sometimes, but it's worth it to protect your organization.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on October 8, 2013 8:44am
When in doubt always look at the law itself. Here's a quote from the copyright law, section 115(a)2:
A compulsory license includes the privilege of making a musical arrangement of the work to the extent necessary to conform it to the style or manner of interpretation of the performance involved, but the arrangement shall not change the basic melody or fundamental character of the work, and shall not be subject to protection as a derivative work under this title, except with the express consent of the copyright owner.
This only applies to recordings ("compulsory licenses" are for distribution of recordings), not performances, but as another thread has discussed, permission to arrange might also be implied by the performance license, at least to a limited degree. However, you definitely can't publish an arrangement without explicit permission from the copyright owner.
"Mechanical license" is another word for compulsory license — it's just a difference in emphasis, in that they're licenses to present music via mechanical means (via a recording) but they also can't be denied by the copyright holder if you pay the statutory fee, and are thus compulsory.
on October 9, 2013 5:17am
Yes, that's a good point, Allen. The permission to arrange, as well as permissions to copy POP music, link on some of the websites often asks when the piece will be performed, how many copies will be made + if it will become a permanent part of the organization's library.
on October 8, 2013 9:03am
Here's a resource for a cappella folks who want to monetize their covers and arrangements of existing copyrighted songs:
They do licensing and distribution for vocal bands, and they have done their homework. My son Jesse was one of the company's founders.
David Avshalomov
on October 9, 2013 4:23am
All the answers I've seen are good ones. I have another suggestion though. Try signing up with some of the digital services like or, put in the genre of music you want and listen to some of the unknown artists out here. Many of them are very willing to give you the permission you seek without all of the waiting and hassle. They would like their songs (many of them beautiful) heard but don't have the corporate machinery behind them necessary to get it done. 
This would be a way of saving money, staying legal AND (and this part we all know about) saving time!
on October 9, 2013 8:32am
Thanks for the guidance so far. I am wondering about a piece we're working on now. It's a traditional French Canadian tune that's been arranged by a band. We are using the same lines they've written, but having them come in at different times (bringing forward two bass lines to start at m2 rather than m40). We have also added another harmonic line. But it's primarily what the band arranged. We are learning it by ear. Do we need to get PTA?
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