Gosh, That Sounds Familiar!

By Brian Taylor Goldstein, Esq.

Dear Law and Disorder:

A composer has been commissioned to write an ‘original’ work for a particular soloist or specific chamber ensemble. The commission agreement stipulates that the performing artist is granted exclusivity, giving the artist a certain period of time in which he/she has the sole right to perform the new work for a specified length of time. During that period, the composer has an opportunity to expand the work, making certain modifications and reconfiguring the piece for a different and larger group, such as a chamber orchestra or full orchestra. Can the new work, although based on the originally commissioned score, be considered sufficiently different in its new configuration, to be exempt from the exclusivity requirements, outlined in the original commission?

One of the cornerstones of English Common Law is the principal that: Everything which is not forbidden is allowed. However, this presumes that with such freedom comes the wisdom to discern that everything which is permitted is not necessarily advisable. For example, the fact that we are legally entitled to eat as many deep fried twinkies as we wish, does not necessarily mean that we should.

As we’ve discussed before in this blog, when a composer is commissioned to write a new work the mere act of paying for the work to be composed does not in and of itself convey anything to the commissioner—other than the pleasure and fulfillment of facilitating the act of creation. If the commissioner wants the rights to perform or record the work, or wants a specific artist to be able to perform or record the work, such rights must be specified in the commission agreement. Otherwise, all rights to the commissioned work are exclusively owned and controlled by the composer—including the rights to modify, amend, re-arrange, re-configure, re-orchestrate, and do anything else with the work the composer chooses.

If the commission agreement includes the right for a soloist or ensemble to perform the work for a certain period of time, then the commission agreement must also specify exactly what rights are being conveyed. Anything not specified, belongs to the composer. For example, does the soloist or ensemble have the exclusive right to perform the work as titled or can the composer grant permission for other artists to perform it under a different title? More importantly, how is the word “work” defined? Does the artist’s right to perform the “work” include the right to perform modifications, changes, edits, re-orchestrations, re-configurations, or other variations of the work? Can the artist make such changes herself or only with the composer’s permission? Even if the artist has no rights to such changes or variations, does the artist’s rights of exclusivity prohibit the composer from composing variations and re-orchestrations and permitting other artists and ensembles to perform them? It all depends on what is in the commission agreement.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that the commission agreement in your “hypothetical” lacks any specific definition of “exclusivity.” Given the almost visceral fear in the arts industry of any contractual terms longer than a postage stamp, this is a reasonable assumption. That being the case, then the artist or ensemble only has exclusivity with regard to the work exactly as written and the composer is free to make re-orchestrations, variations, derivations, and arrangements and allow other artists to perform them. However, the fact that the composer is free to do so, does not necessarily mean that it is advisable.

It’s an equally reasonable assumption that the commissioner, rightly or wrongly, presumed that the exclusive right for the artist or ensemble to perform the work inherently included anything that sounded like the work. Admittedly, the commissioner should never have entered into a contract, much less allowed money to change hands, based on a presumption. However, taking advantage of either a misplaced presumption or even a contractual oversight or will not only serve to poison the composer’s reputation for future commissions, but add a significant debt to the composer’s karma bank. In short, my contractual analysis notwithstanding, I would strongly urge the composer to discuss his opportunity to expand the work with the artist and the commissioner before he or she starts heading for the twinkie stand.


For additional information and resources on this and otherGG_logo_for-facebook legal and business issues for the performing arts, visit ggartslaw.com

To ask your own question, write to lawanddisorder@musicalamerica.org.

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 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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