A copyright holder has flatly refused my request to add additional lyrics to one of their songs, for use in a private congregational church setting.

Does this mean it is simply illegal?

I have seen several high-profile cases in the pop music world recently where artists have resolved copyright dispute by simply adding other artists as writers - sometimes as a precautionary measure before any complaint has been made! And going a bit further back, The Verve famously were only allowed to release their hit single "Bittersweet Symphony" by giving up all income to the Rolling Stones (whose song they sampled).

Does this imply that I can make a derivative work so long as I relinquish any rights to it, or does the original author still have the final say - is listing them as the author merely a politeness they can reject or does it grant me some official position? I couldn't care less if they wanted to claim ownership but I don't understand the rules. A lot of the time in real life it seems artists just 'do it' and then pay some/all the proceeds to the copyright holder but it is important to me I do things correctly.

  • 11
    For the most part, the law doesn't really care if you "claim ownership" of a copyrighted work; the problem is if you infringe on one of the actual owner's exclusive rights, which includes "public performance." So publicly performing the work without permission is going to violate copyright, regardless of whether you claim ownership.
    – bdb484
    Nov 21, 2022 at 18:19
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    I am going a bit off-topic here, but still slightly related, as you may wonder about parody songs, which are in essence songs with modified lyrics, for which no license is required, so why can't you do the same? This is because the author of a parody is expressing their thoughts about the song, for which it requires to reproduce parts or the entire song. For as long as you are doing that, you should be good, but from your description this is not at all the case. Also, simply claiming something as parody is only as good as a judge ultimately agrees it's a parody.
    – Andrei
    Nov 21, 2022 at 19:24
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    @Andrei and to be clear - you must parody the original work, not something else. What "Weird Al" Yankovic does is not parody under copyright law because he uses the music to parody something else and he gets permission from the rights holders. What 2 Live Crew did was parody because its target was the original song.
    – Dale M
    Nov 21, 2022 at 22:31
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    By the way, you need a licence to perform copyrighted music in your church; its a public performance.
    – Dale M
    Nov 21, 2022 at 22:34
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    @DaleM to parody the original work is a pleonasm. If a parody song is not about the original song, then it's simply not a parody song. You seem to suggest that using a song o make fun of something is called a parody. I believe you are mistaken.
    – Andrei
    Nov 22, 2022 at 14:28

2 Answers 2


general things on copyright

Copyright law is very similar globally, due to the Berne convention on copyright.

Ány country's copyright law grants the copyright to an author. Copyright is the exclusive right of an author to authorize ("license") copies, performance, and derivative works. In case multiple authors jointly create a work, they own the right in their respective parts, or jointly.

The copyright holder can deny making derivatives.

If a derivative is made without authorization, it is copyright infringement. If the author was asked, denied the authorization and it is made anyway, it is wilful copyright infringement.

Relinquishing your rights in the altered work does not make it not copyright infringement. The only way to not commit copyright infringement is to get a license.

Naming the original author of a work you adapted is not just politeness, it is mandatory in all copyrights that follow the Berne convention on copyright.

Licensing Fees

The Verve's agreement to get the license was specifically to pay all the proceeds to the Rolling Stones, but that was an extraordinary case.

License fees for recording a cover version (with the unaltered lyrics!) are usually mandatory to be available. for example in the , it is mandatory to grant a mechanical license to create cover recordings for a licensing fee, for which for example the Harry Fox Agency is collecting and distributing the required payments and royalties. Those Royalties are about 9.1 cents per copy for a sub-5-minute song's recording. This license does not allow to alter lyrics.

However, synchronization (tone and video) is not mandatory to be granted, and those start at a flat 4-digit and are rather open-ended. Without a sync license, you may not make video recordings of a work being performed.

A public performance of a work requires a different license. A performance license is required for any public performance, and those are not regulated either, but typically not too expensive - yet alteration again is not within the scope of such a license. Granting a performance license is typically handled by Performing Rights Organisations such as ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC, taking the required fees and distributing the royalties.

Making an adaptation or alteration is a derivative work. Making a derivative work requires a license that is different again. Those can only be granted by the copyright holders, and if they say no... Close the folder.

The price of copyright infringement

Wilful copyright infringement, especially after you were told no, can be super expensive:

  • In the US, the rightsholder can get 150 000 USD and the lawyer fees for willful infringement. The rightsholder can sue in the US if they are there.
  • Recoverable costs plus damages are also available in the UK, capped at 60 000 GBP for costs and 500 000 GBP in damages.
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    Nitpicking the "naming the original author" point. I am not aware of a specific provision of Berne Convention that requires it. Berne convention require people to abide by the license imposed by the author, if any, or otherwise the author holds all rights to the copy and nobody else has any rights over said copy. Of course, most licenses require naming the original author, but that's a contract matter, not a law matter.
    – Andrei
    Nov 21, 2022 at 19:18
  • @Andrei APPENDIX SPECIAL PROVISIONS REGARDING DEVELOPING COUNTRIES Article IV Provisions Common to Licenses Under Articles II and III: (3) The name of the author shall be indicated on all copies of the translation or reproduction published under a license granted under Article II or Article III. The title of the work shall appear on all such copies. In the case of a translation, the original title of the work shall appear in any case on all the said copies.
    – Trish
    Nov 21, 2022 at 19:35
  • @Andrei while that is only binding for development countries, most country laws just codify something akin to that in their own laws.
    – Trish
    Nov 21, 2022 at 19:36
  • Thanks for pointing out the provision in the appendix. Good read. I am not arguing against you. It may be that many jurisdictions have such a provision to name the author, but it feels unnecessarily prescriptive to me. What if the author wants to remain completely anonymous, but at the same time, they want to license others to use their work without naming them in any form? From what you describe, this would be illegal, unless the law also prescribes that contrary to normal practice, the license takes precedence over that law. Again, I am aware I'm nitpicking almost beside the point.
    – Andrei
    Nov 21, 2022 at 19:46
  • While that answer is generally of a high quality, License fees for recording a cover version (...) are usually mandatory to be available is probably US-specific. Given that the original question has a UK tag, I would suggest to remove it (and the details of the pricing scheme) unless you have a source for UK compulsory licenses.
    – KFK
    Nov 21, 2022 at 21:14

Trish’s answer covers the main point: you need a license, and the license can prevent certain uses such as modified lyrics. There’s a side note though: sometimes, you can use copyrighted works without a license. Is it one of those cases?

Fair dealing: can I perform (without a license) in a "private congregational church setting"?

Almost certainly not.

A limited amount of use of copyrighted works is allowed under various, jurisdiction-dependent provisions. In the , the name of that doctrine is "fair dealing".

The exact amount and scope depends a lot on the jurisdiction, but they almost always cover critical commentary of various forms (a newspaper can print a photograph of someone’s painting to call it ugly, or a politician’s speech to call them a liar; Wikipedia articles can put up film posters in the article about the film; parodies only work if the original work is kept sufficiently recognizable, but they are allowed).

In some jurisdictions, certain small-scale uses are exempt. For instance, has a statute provision for "private and free-entry showings restricted to the family circle" (link to statute, in French).

I could not find any such provision in UK law in my (admittedly quick) search for UK copyright exemptions, and the government’s "copyright for non-lawyers" website lists no such exemption.

Furthermore, even assuming there are such provisions in UK law or jurisprudence, I doubt a "private congregational church setting" is covered. For instance, in France’s (somewhat) generous terms outlined above, it would not be. If the service is open to any who would like to come, even if in practice the same people show up every Sunday, that would be a death blow to any argument that the setting is "private" and small-scale.

  • What rules would apply to the act of showing a piece of work in development to other people for purposes of soliciting judgment as to whether it's good enough to justify the time and effort required to pursue a license? If a work isn't going to be good enough to justify such effort, I suspect most copyright holders would prefer not to be bothered by licensing inquiries for it.
    – supercat
    Nov 21, 2022 at 23:58
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    You could argue that "showing a piece in development" does not constitute distribution (that depends on who you show it to, in what circumstances etc.). Otherwise, the exact same rules apply - you want to use it, you need a license. If the copyright holders "would prefer not to be bothered", it means you have no license, not that you can do whatever you please.
    – KFK
    Nov 22, 2022 at 9:25
  • There's a difference between 'do whatever you please' and 'do some things that are sufficiently trifling that asking permission would do more harm than doing the action without permission'.
    – supercat
    Nov 22, 2022 at 16:15
  • Note that if a plausible outcome of asking for permission to do X would be that the copyright holder says "You may do X for $10" and the person wanting to perform the action paying $10, then doing the action without permission would deprive the copyright holder of $10. If, however, the result would be "I won't authorize a distribution of a recording with altered lyrics unless I can listen to it first", then asking for permission before producing a demo recording would be a waste of time for all concerned. To be sure, one might want to determine the likelihood of a license being granted...
    – supercat
    Nov 22, 2022 at 16:28
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    If your point is that the entire legal-political-economic system of copyright (or even intellectual property in general) is unduly burdening small-scale creators, I wholeheartedly agree with you, but that has no incidence on the question of what the law currently is.
    – KFK
    Nov 22, 2022 at 17:28

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