There is a new trend within academic writing about copyright: people are talking to music makers. I have previously discussed the work of Justin Morey and Phillip McIntyre, who have interviewed sampling artists to gauge their feelings about sample clearance and songwriting splits. Amanda Sewell echoes their work in her investigations into hip-hop sampling. Talking to the artists, she has found a range of approaches to increased licensing fees. In contrast to scholars who moan about a decline in hip-hop’s quality as sampling laws have tightened, she believes that ‘artists have responded to various challenges’. They have found affordances within copyright laws to create new strains of the music.
In addition to this research, there is the work of John Street and Tom Phillips, who set out to discover ‘What Do Musicians Talk About When They Talk About Copyright?’ What they found was that few of their interviewed musicians had ‘any very detailed knowledge of copyright’. At the same time, these musicians were not opposed to copyright per se.
In fact, there was an occasion when they wanted copyright law to offer greater constraints than it actually contains. This was in relation to cover versions. One of the musicians - who is a signed artist - described her band’s attitude when covering a song by a well-known US act. She believed that her cover was done for ‘aesthetic’ rather than commercial reasons and that it was therefore acceptable to the US group. Her band also sought permission from the other act to release their cover version. In return, the artist expected that any act considering covering one of her songs would seek her agreement first. She states, ‘If approval hadn’t been given I would be really, really mad about it to be honest’. So much so that she would ‘hit the roof’.
She might have to do some roof hitting. Copyright law has safeguarded the right to do cover versions. In this respect, the law differentiates songwriting from other artistic practices: the music composer has less control over the future uses of their work. Prince has remarked on the oddity of this, stating: ‘There’s no other artform where you can do that. You can't go and do your own version of Harry Potter. Do you want to hear somebody else sing “Kiss”?’
In Britain, the only constraint on recorded cover versions is the First Licence Refusal (FLR). Songwriters can specify who they first want to record a specific song, but once that version has been released that song is free game. This notion was first enshrined in the 1911 Copyright Act. Clause 19(2) states that ‘It shall not be deemed to be an infringement of copyright in any musical work for any person to make … records … if such person proves that such contrivances have previously been made by, or with the consent or acquiescence of, the owner of the copyright in the work’, i.e. if a recording of a song had already been made available, then other performers were permitted to record their own version of the song. The Act also outlined how songwriters would be rewarded for the cover versions of their work: they would receive a royalty of 5% of the retail price of each record sold. According to Terri Anderson:
The reason why this Act … embodied a Statutory Licence (a compulsory licence after the first recording of any copyright music) was that the British Government shared the US Government’s fear that the then all-powerful music publishers would want to strangle the infant record industry at birth, and the best way to do this would have been to deprive it of any worthwhile copyright music to record.
Accordingly, the US Copyright of 1909 had also safeguarded cover versions. Clause 1(e)a states:
That whenever the owner of a musical copyright has used or permitted or knowingly acquiesced in the use of the copyrighted work upon the arts of instruments serving to reproduce mechanically the musical work, any other person may make similar use of the copyrighted work upon the payment to the copyright proprietor of a royalty of two cents on each such part manufactured.
Marybeth Peters has suggested that, rather than acting to restrain the publishing industry, Congress was instead ‘concerned that the right to make mechanical reproductions of musical works might become a monopoly controlled by a single [record] company’. Consequently, the Act made the recorded repertoire of songs available to all record companies.
In the US the royalty rate remained at 2 cents per record until the Copyright Act of 1976, and even then it was only raised to 2.75 cents. This Act also introduced conditions for artists who wanted to make cover versions, including the notion that ‘the arrangement shall not change the basic melody or fundamental character of the work’. The administration of this licensing scheme has remained in the hands of the US government. Licensees are expected to apply to the Copyright Office for permission to record their cover versions. That said, according to Donald S. Passman, ‘the compulsory license is almost never used’. It is too burdensome, and so publishers offer direct licences instead.
The UK has moved in a different direction. Here, the compulsory licence was retained in the 1956 Copyright Act, which raised the rate to 6¼% of the retail price of each record sold. By the time of the 1988 Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, however, the compulsory licence had been removed. Rather than being enshrined in copyright law it was instead perpetuated in the Membership Agreement of the ‘mechanical’ collection society, MCPS. In contrast to the US Copyright Act, the MCPS sets no specific guidelines regarding the nature of cover versions. In the UK, as long as a prior version exists, and the new work is not derogatory, artists are free to make any arrangement in any way they wish.
If this causes the musician quoted by Street and Phillips to bang her head, she should brace herself, as the rules surrounding cover versions are only growing looser. For many years MCPS included an FLR box on their songwriting registration forms. Songwriters would have to tick this box if they wanted a specific artist to make the first recording of their work. MCPS found that this process held up the licensing process and have consequently devised a new system. Songwriters now have to inform them of an infringing cover version after they have discovered that one is due to be released. Only then will MCPS block the offending article.
The compulsory licence is the reason why cover versions can rain down on us. Everyone has a cover version that they object to (Prince might not want to hear Tom Jones’s ‘Kiss’; I don’t want to hear Travis doing ‘Baby One More Time’), but it’s a small price to pay for musical freedom of speech.