Derivative Works

Do you follow Postmodern Jukebox? They specialize in arrangements of current pop tunes in vintage styles (’40s jazz, Motown, Edith Piaf, etc.). This is my favorite cover, featuring Puddles The Sad Clown singing Royals.

Recently they performed a ’20s version of Iggy Azalea’s Fancy.

Recently on the BBC version of the Voice, a contestant sang this:

Sound similar? Are you, like many Postmodern Jukebox fans, irate that the show gave absolutely no credit or acknowledgement of their original work on the project? Here’s the most recent official post from the PMJ page:

In case you haven’t heard, BBC The Voice UK played a note-for-note copy of our 1920’s arrangement of Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” (ft. the multitalented Ash Stroud on vocals & tap dance) without permission and without giving us any credit – even after so many of our amazing fans asked them to do so. It’s disappointing to have your work stolen, but we’re turning this situation into something more positive by giving all profits from the sale of OUR version of “Fancy” this month to Save the Children UK.

The comments below their post are irate, and fans have submitted formal complaints to the BBC.

But here’s the important thing to understand: under copyright law, arrangements like these are considered derivative works and the arrangers have no rights of their own. Both Postmodern Jukebox and The Voice were required to purchase the right to arrange this song, and both presumably signed a contract granting all rights to the arrangement to the copyright holder (composers, or whoever owns the song). Legally, The Voice did exactly what they needed to do.

Does this feel wrong to you? It does to me. Scott Bradlee’s arrangement of Fancy seems original and fundamentally different from the original; the fact that he retains no rights to his work is one of several significant problems in the way copyright law is written.

Every arranger I know deals with this problem regularly in their work – their creativity in reimagining a song is deemed not worthy of protection, but the original composer’s work is often protected for a century or more!

If you believe that copyright law is in need of reform, please visit Creative Commons, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, or any number of other places to read more. The U.S. Copyright Office recently released a comprehensive report titled “Copyright and the Music Marketplace.”