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Say a composer read a poem. The poem is the published work of a living poet and obviously protected by copyright. This composer was inspired by the poem, and down the road he has written a piece of music that is his own artistic response to it.

The musical piece composed has no text (it is an instrumental work only), and any connections to the poem that inspired it exist solely in the composer's imagination.

At this point, is the composer's work derivative of the poem?

And if the composer indicates in program notes, discussion with the performers, an interview, etc. that it was inspired by that specific poem, does that then make it a derivative work?

And I'm assuming that were the composer to desire titling his work with the same title as the poem, that would definitely be derivative, and require permission?

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No

Copyright protects expressions of ideas but not ideas. A song with the words if a poem set to music would generally require the permission of the owner of the copyrighted poem. An instrumental score “inspired by a poem” would not remotely be using the same expression, or a derivative of, the poem.

Titles are not subject to copyright and there are many books with identical titles. Try “The Gathering Storm” as a book title.

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  • So, in the case described originally, the only thing that would make the work derivative would be if it included the poem text as a lyric to be sung?
    – nuggethead
    Jan 12 at 17:25
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    @nuggethead It wou;ld be possible to have a musical work designed as a setting of a poem, where the meter and tone wee closely adapted to the actual words of the poem. In that case it might be considered to be a derivative work, even if published without the words. But that kind of very close relationship does not seem to be what the question is describing. Whether the music would be treated as derivative in such a case would be judgement call, ultimately to be made by a court if a suit was brought, but that would be a rare occurrence; this fact pattern is not usual. Jan 12 at 17:53
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    I would be very surprised if a court ever rued this way. It is often the case that many different sets of words have been set to the same musical score. There is not a one-to-one correspondence between a tune and possible words. Jan 12 at 19:20
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    It's one of many cases where the legal meaning of a word is different to the common meaning. Plenty of works that a literary critic might find derivative don't match the legal definition.
    – Stuart F
    Jan 13 at 18:01

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