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Copyright questions

There are probably many of you that can give insight to this question - I'm hoping for "real-world" and practical advice.
I have just finished writing an arrangement of a current "pop" song. I plan on giving it to a small non-curricular a capella choir that is associated with our local university. The hope, of course, is that they might perform it. I have been poking around on the internet looking for information about what my rights as an arranger are under current copyright laws, most of the time finding either situation-specific articles or lengthy legal-ese explanations of the law. The original version of the song is vocal with guitar, keyboard and some percussion and my arrangement, as I stated is for a capella choir alone. I do not plan to sell the piece to the ensemble, only to get a good recording to bolster my and their resumé. My question is, is it necessary for me to seek approval from the publisher to do such a thing? And does the "derivative work" portion of the law apply to this, or is that only for arrangements completed by the orignal composer? Any and all adivice is greatly appreciated. Unfortunately, my musical education is almost strictly in the technical/musical realm, with very little of the real-world "business" side to help me function in the world.
Thanks to all,
Jason Lamb
on November 12, 2013 1:09pm
Hi, Jason --
I'm assuming you're in the US -- if not, this may or may not apply.
Let me preface this by saying I'm not a lawyer, and to be 100% sure, you could contact an attorney who specializes in copyright and/or intellectual property.
That said, this is my understanding of current US copyright law:  If you want to arrange a work under copyright, you need to get permission from the copyright holder to do so.  An arragement is considered a "derivative work," and so is covered under US copyright law.  I don't think it matters whether the arrangement will be sold, given away, or whatever.  The only time you don't need to get permission to create an arrangement is if you're using something that's in the public domain.  
The Music Publishers Association has a fairly simple and clear discussion of copyright law as it pertains to musicians.  Here's what they say about arrangements in their FAQ:
"Can I Make A Band Arrangement Of A Copyrighted Piano Solo? Can I Make A Flute Arrangement Of A Copyrighted Work For Clarinet?

No. Making any arrangement is a duplication, and permission must be obtained from the copyright owner."

They also include a form that you can complete to request permission to arrange:
This is something that most composers face:  it's always better to obtain permission BEFORE you spend time creating an arrangement (or setting a text that is under copyright), and is one of the reasons I focus almost exclusively on public domain material for arrangements.  You might be able to get by doing it without getting caught, and even if you do get caught, the copyright holder may just ask you to remove the recording.  But why take the chance?
Lana Mountford
Bellingham, WA


Applauded by an audience of 2
on November 12, 2013 1:17pm
If the arrangement is going to be performed, you/the ensemble will need to secure permission to arrange from the copyright owner or the print publisher of the work if the copyright owner does not own the print rights directly.  The copyright owner/print publisher will issue a license granting you the right to create the arrangement for the sole performance use of the specific ensemble that plans to perform the work.  Also, if the arrangement is approved, you'll eventually need to obtain the rights to record and distribute the recording of your arrangement.
I'd be happy to discuss this with you more if you'd like to give me a call or drop me an email.  I work full-time in copyright licensing and spend most of my days dealing with arrangement licensing!  My office number is (608) 788-1630 and my work email address is
Dustin Oldenburg
on November 12, 2013 3:40pm
Lana's advice pretty much covered it.  No, you can't legallly do what you propose without permission.  And why bother doing it without legal permission...
on November 12, 2013 5:34pm
Thanks for the info. In all honesty, is it likely/unlikely that I will be granted permission for this (seeking permission from Universal Music Publishing Group)? And does it help for them to hear from someone in "the business" as opposed to me contacting them directly?
on November 17, 2013 12:19pm
What's strange and a little unfair, I think, is that you can perform a copyrighted song in a club, say, with a singer, piano, rhythm section, and that isn't considered a derivative work, it's considered a performance and if the club is paying PRO fees, you're basically covered.  However, most, if not all, performances I've done this way, the standards are arrangements, they're concepts on the existing tune (chords changed, intros added, meter changed, etc.).  But they're charts, not notated note by note.  That's the only difference.  Does anyone see a disconnect here?  Of course, these arrangements aren't published but they can be recorded and the composer/publisher would collect performance royalties.  (in my example, I am speaking of standard tunes, not a new song where there is a right of first performance).
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