Music Copyright Issue

Copyright matters affecting music and musicians.
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Music Copyright Issue

Post by Anna »

Hi All,

I found a composer to make a melody for my lyrics. But he refuses to waive the copyright and grant it to me, nor sell the copyright. He only approves perpetual right of use. This song will be widely used for non-profit activities. I don't have the budget to pay every time and asking permission each time affects my activities to some degree. Thus I think of making the a derivative melody based on the composer's rhythm without changing too much. Will I achieve my original purpose(using the entire song freely) by doing this? Or is there any other way to make my situation better? Thank you for your help in advance!
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Post by AndyJ »

Hi Anna,

I'm not sure exactly what you are describing when you talk about the composer approving a perpetual right of use. Is he offering to licence the use of his music in return for a fee every time you play the music in public, or does he have some other arrangement in mind? If it is the former, then that is not unlike how music licensing usually works, in that a composer would get a royalty for every time his work is played or performed. There would normally be different rates for, say, a straightforward (acoustic) public performance, a studio recording and any subsequent record sales, a play on the radio or incorporation of the song in the sound track of a movie or video etc. Assuming there was some sort of audit process approved by the composer, you wouldn't need to ask each time you used music, just pay the accrued royalties at six monthly or yearly intervals. Normally the vehicle for doing all this would be a copyright collection society, such as PRS and MCPS. The actual royalty per performance should be fairly small.

Also I am not entirely clear whether you would be performing the music live every time you perform the song, or whether the music would be pre-recorded and used as a backing track. This would affect the royalty rate payable.

Looking at the issue from the composer's point of view, he should not be expected to give up his copyright, but equally, if his tune becomes widely known as the melody for your song, it will severely limit his chances of exploiting the music in any other form, say as the tune for an entirely separate song with someone else's lyrics. On that basis it is in his interests to collaborate closely with you, as the success of his music will probably depend directly on the success of your song.

Such licensing is fairly complicated and I would suggest that any agreement should be drawn up by a music lawyer in order to ensure everything thing is fair and is in accordance with best industry practice. If you feel that may involve too much expense, off-the-shelf agreements are available.

However if you still find all that too restrictive, then composing your own melody would be a sensible alternative. But you will have to be very careful not to copy his music. Almost every week we hear of a new court case in which it is alleged that one song writer has allegedly 'stolen' part of the music of another artist, and this area of copyright law is probably the one which most often comes to court. The problem is that there are no guidelines to tell you what is acceptable and what is not. One musician's 'influence' is another's plagiarism. Even 'unconscious copying' has resulted in a famous musician being found liable for infringement. Clearly you can use the same tempo, but you really need to avoid any obvious similarity to the melody line. Indeed even the re-use of certain cord sequences has been found in the past to infringe, where it was obvious that this was being done to capitalise on the popularity of the earlier song.
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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