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I received an E-mail newsletter inviting me to watch a chorus perform several songs that were arranged for this occasion. They are also selling tickets, so I don't know if half of the profit is sent to the publishers for having performed those songs. In the E-mail they said

This time, we'll be singing songs of LOVE from some of your favorite artists (We can't quite tell you what they are because of boring copyright stuff, but they rhyme with BABBA, Qween and Bruno Bars) along with original spoken word performances and all the magic you've come to expect.

So, is it really because of copyright that they can't tell you what they are, or is it a diversion tactic? And, if it is a copyright violation, how and why?

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    I don't know these people, but I assume they mean they are preforming songs they don't own the rights to and don't want to broadcast that. – Putvi Apr 2 at 20:14
  • This question is verging on non-LawSE grounds, by encouraging speculation on the motives of the people in question, rather than sole focusing on legal facts. – Acccumulation Apr 3 at 3:40
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    Your question title is talking about SONG names, while the message in the body is obfuscating and referencing ARTIST names. Which are you asking about? – Aethenosity Apr 3 at 4:21
  • @Aethenosity The quote is kind of unclear. It seems like 'they' should refer back to the subject of the previous clause, which would indeed be the songs, but then the next clause says 'they' ryhme with the poorly-obfuscated artist names. So, I don't think it's so much a problem with the question not being clear as the quote it's asking about not being clear (or grammatical.) – reirab Apr 3 at 5:40
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    If you tag the question with the name of your country, you are more likely to get an answer that is right for you. – Stig Hemmer Apr 3 at 7:47
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Such an event would qualify as a transformative work, in which the original art is changed in some way from the more famous version. It's determined on a whole host of factors, including the possibility for monetary damages, but you are allowed to, under certain conditions, profit off of derivative works. The question about monetary damages normally hinges on whether people are buy your work, believing that it is the plaintiff's, and that is costing the plantiff money.

One notable example is "Weird Al" Yankovic, who's music is generally humorous parodies of popular songs. While there is no legal obligation for him to do such, Weird Al famously gets permission from the original artist of the song because he is a stand up guy and is only doing the parody out of respect, and wants the artist to be in on the joke (Some more famous incidents including Michael Jackson denying his parody of "Black and White" despite giving approval to parodies of "Bad" and "Beat it", a rift between Al and Coolio after the former only got permission to Parody "Gangsta's Paradise" from the record company, not Coolio himself (who initially would have said no, but has since admitted he was impressed by Al's rapping), and Lady GaGa, a huge fan of Al, being absolutely mortified that the record company did say No to Al's request to Parody "Born this Way" without talking to her about it and called up Al to set the record straight). Al's just a nice guy, but he doesn't need to do this.

The reason that they claim copyright concerns is two fold. The "I'd like to tell that... ...but I can't" is creatively getting around that that they want you to be informed by what works to expect, without giving away specific songs that they want to do. If they don't want to do the Qween song where they confess to their moms that they killed a guy and are contimplating suicide because everyone does it and it's long, they can still "name" the band without giving away that they will be singing about their attraction to women with posteriors so large, they cause a rocky planet to spin.

It's also a humor in the vein of acknowledging that they are not the original song writers and most famous singers of the song (citing who is is a great way to get out of the money damage issues, because your making clear that you're not in any way, shape, or form, comparable to the most famous version of the song). Simpsons did a famous gag where, in a parody of "The Shining" they refered to the powers as "The Shinning" after Bart almost name drops the original work, prompting Groundskeeper Willie to shut him up with a protest "Ye want to get sued?!" Of course, this had not been the first time The Simpsons parodied a Horror Genera work... in fact, its usually their first episode of the Season... but it was mocking the fact that it was a famous story and we all know it.

And finally, someone singing a song they didn't write or originally perform. And infact some of the most famous songs of all time were written by someone, performed by a different person, and finally famously performed by who we attribute the song to. A great example of this is the sound "Hound Dog", which was written by a pair of song writers to be performed by an artist known as "Big Mama' Bertha". It didn't get famous until, as the writers tell the story, it was performed by "Some new guy named Elvis!" Disney's musical division famously released two versions of "Let It Go" by two different artists at the same time, believing the film version wouldn't be as popular as the pop rendition by a more widely known artist but feeling it would get radio play. Megan Trainer wrote songs for other artists before she became known. She was frustrated that her songs weren't getting picked up by famous recording artists and decided to just record them herself when they didn't sell.

This is called a "Cover" and happens all the time. The reason it is allowed is that music copyrights normally cover the unique vocals of someone singing and musical accompaniment. Under U.S. Copyright laws, words and prhases cannot be copyrighted so there is no law to stop someone from speaking those words in an artisticly unique way, or using a tune with different words (fun fact, Hum the tune of "My Country tis of Thee" and then hum "God Save the Queen") or taking the words from one song and singing them to the tune of another (another fun trick: Sing the first Pokemon Theme song to the tune of The Ballad of Gilligan's Isle). Or to a bunch of different songs (there's a cool video on Youtube of two guys having a genre sing off: They sing "Shape of You" in the styles of various genres and artists in full.

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    Both lyrics and music can definitely be copyrighted, but there is a special provision in copyright law that provides that if a piece of music has been sold in recorded form, anyone else may record and sell their own version provided that they faithfully reproduce the melody of the original work and either the original lyrics or no lyrics, without added narrative or visual content, and provided that they notify the copyright holder and pay a royalty of either 1.75 cents per minute per copy, or 9.1 cents per copy, whichever is higher. – supercat Apr 3 at 18:01
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    Yes, but the choir isn't recording, they are performing, and they are fundementally changing the song through their performance (for example, Bruno Mars is a solo act. Choirs are inherently not and typically have a lot more participants than four people, such as ABBA and Queen. Also Choirs tend to focus on vocalization of the performers and are minimalist on instrumental music if not entirely acapella, while these songs tend to use musical instrument. That said, Queen did create "We Will Rock You" to encourage audience participation and the "music" can be done by clapping and stamping. – hszmv Apr 3 at 18:14
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    "music copyrights normally cover the unique vocals of someone singing and musical accompaniment" Completely wrong. You can absolutely copyright a musical composition (the words and notes written on a page), as well as a specific recorded performance. "Under U.S. Copyright laws, words and p[hr]ases cannot be copyrighted" True but irrelevant, since the entire lyrics to a song certainly constitute a copyrightable quantity of text. (There's no literal minimum quantity but, once you've strung enough sentences together, you're in copyright territory.) – David Richerby Apr 4 at 10:34
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    And God Save the Queen/My Country 'Tis of Thee is irrelevant because the tune predates copyright: it dates back to about 1619, whereas the first copyright law was the Statute of Queen Anne in 1709. – David Richerby Apr 4 at 10:42
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    You bring up cover songs, but completely fail to mention that you need to get a mechanical license to record one, or risk infringing copyright - you're not free to do whatever you want with someone else's song. Elvis went to court over his cover of "Hound Dog". Weird Al doesn't need to obtain copyright permission because his work is clearly parody. And @DavidRicherby is correct, you are way off base with "words and phrases cannot be copyrighted" here - song lyrics are indeed copyrightable, just like a poem or short story. A lot of this answer is irrelevant or incorrect. – Nuclear Wang Apr 4 at 13:17
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The name can not be copyrighted, but they don't own the rights to the songs and they are telling you they will perform them.

They don't want to put it in writing that they are performing songs they legally can't.

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    Probably true, although it is possible that the singers have misunderstood what copyright protects. They might or might not be violating copyright. Often the place of performance has a general license with one of the collecting societies which would make this legal. – David Siegel Apr 3 at 0:50
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    The venue needs a PPA license (public place of amusement) to charge a cover fee. - Isn't the wording something like: you cannot advertise and then receive monetary compensation for reproducing or performing a protected work of art. ? You can't sell yourself under the guise of their intellectual property. I'm not sure how the actual wording goes, but I'm pretty sure that's how you get away with doing a live cover song. Releasing an album with a cover probably requires permission though. – Mazura Apr 3 at 3:59
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    @Mazura If you can find that wording, that sounds like the basis for a good answer. – reirab Apr 3 at 5:42
  • In the US, recording a song cover can be done under a "mandatory license". This means that permission is not needed, but notice must be given to the copyright holder, and a royalty paid at a rate set by the Copyright Office. Or a deal can be negotiated instead. This license does not cover playing a version recorded by someone else. – David Siegel Apr 3 at 13:21
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    The senders are making a joke, not a legal point. – Bad_Bishop Apr 3 at 14:53
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Song names, book titles, etc. can not be copyrighted. There are many examples of multiple songs/books having the same title. The ASCAP Repertory web site has dozens of songs with the one-word title "Love".

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It wouldn't matter if song titles could be copyrighted. (Artist names are a different story). They are always allowed to use the names referentially, or merely to reference them. I'm typing this on an Apple iPad w/ AT&T cellular data; see, no copyright violation there.

It's also perfectly legal to be "cutesey" and have fun with the copyright concept. (Alternately, they really are that dim about copyright, in which case, it's worrisome that they plan to sing a bunch of popular songs in a public performance!)

That last bit is the real worry here. Song copyright has two parts, you pay the performer and you pay the writers. In the advertised event, she'll need to pay the songwriters. She doesn't need to pay the performers unless she's using a recorded track.

Usually this is handled under a blanket contract with the artist's representatives, typically ASCAP or BMI. Look at the liner notes for any record, you'll see where every song states ASCAP or BMI right near it. A clever person might choose to pay ASCAP and not BMI, and then only select ASCAP songs. Nobody wants to pay them of course, but if you have a regular going-concern business, the fees are not too burdensome. They can get fairly out-of-hand for a rare event.

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The organizer of the event might not be worried about violating copyrights (although they should) but about violating trademarks.

I did not check, but I would not be surprised if "ABBA", "Queen" and "Bruno Mars" are registered trademarks. So when someone advertises an event with these names, they might be in violation of these trademarks.

  • Bruno Mars is not, as it is his name and names cannot be copyrighted. Similarly Queen cannot be copyrighted because Queen does not necessarily refer to the band but generically any female monarch or other cultural meanings. Not sure on the orign for the name ABBA. – hszmv Apr 3 at 18:07
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    The names are trademarked. You can't set your own band and name it "ABBA" or "Queen". However, we can talk and write about ABBA and Queen and use its names to refer to them - just as we are doing here. – Pere Apr 3 at 18:57
  • The members of Abba were Agnetha, Björn, Benny, and Anni-Frid. – chepner Apr 3 at 19:39
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    @hszmv "names cannot be copyrighted" This answer is talking about trademarks, not copyright. – David Richerby Apr 4 at 10:38
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    There's a story I heard about a guy named Keith Richards (no, not that one) who was playing guitar in local bars, and was sued by the famous Rolling Stone of the same name. I think he won because he's actually older than his famous namesake and it is his actual name assigned at birth. As long as he doesn't claim to be "Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones", he's free to perform under that name. This probably doesn't apply to names chosen by bands though. – Darrel Hoffman Apr 4 at 21:20
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There are no legal restrictions on live performance of any music, except for the unlikely situation where the performers are sued for defamation of the original artists or composers, because the performance is just plain awful, or more likely is a deliberate parody making fun of the original version.

Performance venues are licenced, and pay performing rights fees (which are nothing to do with "copyright") usually to a national collection agency that redistributes them to the original creators of the work. This does not involve the performers "paying half the profit to the publishers" directly! Such fees are usually included in the hire charges for the venue.

The place where copyright restrictions do apply here is if the performers have violated copyright in obtaining the sheet music of what they perform. If they learned the music entirely "by ear" from recordings, they can perform anything they like. If they make a large number of illegal copies of a printed document, that is a violation of copyright whether or not they perform anything at all.

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    I find this answer confusing. You say there aren't any legal restrictions on live performance of music, and then go on to describe several. You suggest that public performance licenses have nothing to do with copyright, but then describe that they are an agreement between the licensee and the copyright holder, and ultimately pay royalties to the copyright holder. Suggesting that learning a song by ear means that you're free to perform it anywhere you like is simply false - it's someone else's intellectual property, regardless of how you learned it. – Nuclear Wang Apr 3 at 13:55
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    I believe that "There are no legal restrictions on live performance of any music, " is incorrect in the US. I think that a performer must either obtain a mandatory license, and pay the associated fee, or rely on a venue's performance license, or obtain individual permission. But I need to check to be sure of this. What source supports this answer? – David Siegel Apr 3 at 13:55
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    "[P]erformers are sued...because the performance is just plain awful..." Are there really examples of this? – maxathousand Apr 3 at 14:13
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    @maxathousand You can't defame someone by licensing their copyrighted song and performing it poorly - that's simply not what defamation is. And parody is one of the few things that is exempt from the original's copyright. There's a lot of incorrectness in this answer. – Nuclear Wang Apr 3 at 14:30

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