What is it about a song that is copyrighted?

Copyright matters affecting music and musicians.
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What is it about a song that is copyrighted?

Post by Steve »

I want to play a song in public, where the composer died within the last 70 years. I know the chords and the melody, so the pianist and bassist will play around the chords, then I will play the melody, then improvise. I know that I need PRS cover for the public performance, but I have also been told that this is an arrangement of the song, and so I need to get the copyright owner's permission in order to make this arrangement.

This is very difficult to believe, because every jazz band in every bar in the world would have to get agreement of many publishers for every gig. But I can't exactly see where the line is drawn - if I can legally 'arrange' this song in the way I describe, is it then OK to write down the chords and tune, and if that's OK is it also OK to write down a harmonisation of the tune for three instruments. Or an unaccompanied arrangment in twelve parts, for saxes, trumpets and trombones And so on.

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Post by AndyJ »

Hi Steve,
In very general terms making a new arrangement of a piece of music is an adaptation which is a right that belongs to the composer. So you would need permission. But much depends on the amount of change involved in the new arrangement when determining if permission needs to be sought.
PRSfor Music have a webpage covering this topic which may help. I suggest you contact them for a more detailed assessment of your case.
Just a word of warning about sources of help on this subject. Try to ascertain whether the website you are viewing is based on UK or US law as there are significant differences between the two. In particular US copyright law has a much broader doctrine of fair use which allows both for pastiche and for so-called transformative use, neither of which are recognised by the UK courts.
Your point about jazz musicians is a good one. Given that jazz music has a very long history of 'borrowing' tunes, riffs and motifs together with widespread improvisation, I imagine it is a nightmare for the collecting societies to police this genre of music for the kind of infringement which might occur through adaptation. I am not aware of any court case in the UK which has specifically examined this issue, so I will take a more detailed look to see what I can find on the subject.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that you can create a new arrangement and write it down without any major problems as this would be classed as for private use; the problems first occur when you want to perform the music in public, or record it or distribute your written score.
Advice or comment provided here is not and does not purport to be legal advice as defined by s.12 of Legal Services Act 2007
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