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There's a song that's been with me for the past 10-12 years (song was released in 1975 by record label Reprise), and its lyrics vividly describe various scenes of a historical event in human history. At the same time, I'm an amateur artist/musician in both piano and graphite/charcoal sketching, and over the past year or so I've created a series of artworks that were derived from/directly inspired by the lyrics of this song.

Well, I now have a friend who's interested in purchasing this art ($700 - $1000 USD), and so, I'm wondering if I'd be breaking any copyright law by selling it to him..

For the song, every two to three lines describes a "scene", and I've created a body of work for each scene in the song. Also, the artwork itself is quite consistent with the lyrics. Which is to say that, if you were to see this artwork in a certain order, it'd almost be like "watching the song".

So, ultimately, what I'm asking is..

is copyright law for songs confined to that medium of art? Or, does it also apply across medium types?

I know that if I were to create a movie that's based off a book, and then make profit from the movie, I'd probably be breaking some kind of copyright/IP law.. but, what about going from song to graphite/charcoal art, and for my situation?

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    Note that whether you sell it or not is irrelevant to the question of copyright violation - making the art in the first place is what decides this. – Nij May 6 '18 at 2:53
  • Maybe we should ask Modest Mussorsky (Pictures at an Exhibition) who did the same thing, just the other way round. – gnasher729 May 6 '18 at 22:55
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The way you describe the transition from music to visual makes this really interesting and hard to analyze without seeing the two pieces, but generally speaking, you seen to be somewhere between two key provisions: an artist's copyright includes the exclusive right to create derivative works (including, as you asked, across mediums), but fair use generally allows the creation of transformative works.

My first guess would be that you're into transformative territory, but again, it's hard to say without seeing it. I'd be careful about doing anything here without real legal advice.

Addendum: After a closer read, I actually like your odds a bit better. It sounds like your art is depicting historical events described in the song, rather than depicting anything the artist created. Those events aren't protected, but the lyrical depictions probably would be, as would their selection, and maybe their arrangement, assuming it isn't just chronological or alphabetical.

If the selection and ordering is all of the protected expression that you've copied, I'd feel a lot better about your chances to make out a fair-use argument.

  • "It sounds like your art is depicting historical events described in the song, rather than depicting anything the artist created." -- Right.. since it's a historical event then maybe it's not so unique to the artist. However, since they're only describing specific aspects of said event, and in a unique way, then I thought copyright law might still apply. – user17937 May 6 '18 at 4:06
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    Yeah, it's a tricky question, which is why I'd want advice from someone who can actually look at both works. Generally, though, to the extent they're describing facts about those events, you're free to create works about those facts; to the extent they've creatively described or arranged those facts, the descriptions and arrangements are protectable. The question will be what you've done with whatever is protected. – bdb484 May 6 '18 at 4:12

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