How Does An Unauthorized Arrangement Become Grand Theft Auto?

By Brian Taylor Goldstein, Esq. Dear Law and Disorder: Several years ago, our small ensemble hired a composer to arrange and re-orchestrate a work for us to play. The work itself, which is still under copyright, was originally written and arranged for a large orchestra. Recently, we made a video of our group performing the piece, put it on YouTube, and the composer’s publisher had it taken down. The publisher also told us that the composer had not authorized any arrangements or re-orchestrations. They also told us we couldn’t even perform it live anymore. Is this true? Even though we paid for the re-arrangement ourselves? Even though we have always obtained performance licenses through BMI? We have been performing this arrangement for years and the publisher has never objected before. It doesn’t seem fair. We have engagements in 2013/2014 to specifically perform this piece as part of our repertoire. When you obtain a performance license through ASCAP, BMI or SESAC, you obtain the right to perform a work as written. This includes the right to “interpret” the work to reflect your own style, artistry, expression, etc. However, it does not include the right to re-orchestrate or re-arrange a work in a manner that changes the fundamental nature of the work. For example, obtaining a performance license to perform a work written for a chamber ensemble does not give you the right to “re-arrange” it for four banjos and a zither—as tempting as that may be! The fact that you paid for the re-arrangement doesn’t give you any rights to perform it, if the re-arrangement itself was unauthorized. That’s like stealing a car, but arguing that it wasn’t a crime because you paid for the gas. (My partner, Robyn, says I never met an analogy I didn’t like…so let’s go with that.) However, on the plus side, such as it is, should the composer/publisher of the work ever decide they like your arrangement, they can’t use it without your permission either. The right to the re-arrangement belong to the owner of the re-arrangement—which could be your ensemble or the composer of the re-arrangement, depending on how your commission agreement was drafted. (Remember, the mere act of paying for something doesn’t inherently convey any rights.) The fact that you have been performing this arrangement to date without any trouble might buy you an argument—albeit a weak one—that your past performances were “implicitly” licensed. However, now that the publisher has officially told you that your arrangement is unauthorized, any future performances beyond this point would constitute copyright infringement. The line has been drawn. I know it doesn’t seem fair when a composer, author, publisher, or copyright owner refuses to give you the rights you need—especially in a situation such as yours where your arrangement obviously has artistic merit or else you wouldn’t be getting engagements to perform it. However, bear in mind that those same rules also protect your own rights. Imagine your position if someone had taken that video you posted on YouTube and, without your permission, altered it or used it in such a way that you found artistically objectionable. You would be just as adamant that they must stop. Also, bear in mind that its almost always easier (not to mention legally required) to get rights by asking and negotiating ahead of time, rather than taking what you want and then asking for forgiveness or permission after the fact. It’s the difference between borrowing and stealing a car. __________________________________________________________________ For additional information and resources on this and other legal and business issues for the performing arts, visit To ask your own question, write to All questions on any topic related to legal and business issues will be welcome. However, please post only general questions or hypotheticals. GG Arts Law reserves the right to alter, edit or, amend questions to focus on specific issues or to avoid names, circumstances, or any information that could be used to identify or embarrass a specific individual or organization. All questions will be posted anonymously. __________________________________________________________________ THE OFFICIAL DISCLAIMER: THIS IS NOT LEGAL ADVICE! The purpose of this blog is to provide general advice and guidance, not legal advice. Please consult with an attorney familiar with your specific circumstances, facts, challenges, medications, psychiatric disorders, past-lives, karmic debt, and anything else that may impact your situation before drawing any conclusions, deciding upon a course of action, sending a nasty email, filing a lawsuit, or doing anything rash!

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