I am interested in trying to start a business of doing personalized parody songs - could be used as birthday, graduation, work gifts (etc). What kinds of blanket-permissions can be obtained (or are needed) for this, considering it would be one parody song/one copy for each customer? Most parodists are looking to sell one song to the masses, so this is a bit different as it would be a one-to-one scenario...personalized for the person receiving the song.
As you may be aware, true "parody" is generally protected by the fair use doctrine in copyright law, meaning that no permission is needed to parody a song or other copyrighted work. However, what constitutes "parody" for fair use purposes is often misunderstood (or maybe debated, depending on your point of view). To be protected as fair use parody, the parody must comment on the copyrighted work itself, not some other subject. For instance, the seminal parody case by the U.S. Supreme Court found that Two Live Crew's parody of Roy Orbison's "Pretty Woman" song was fair use because the parody version made light of, and commented in a sense on, the original song. However, courts have held since then that the use of a song to comment on another subject -- for example using a modified version a popular song to make fun of a political candidate or large corporation -- is not fair use because it is simply using the song as vehicle to "parody" or comment on a completely different subject. The business model you describe may well fit into the latter category and therefore not be protected by fair use.
As to getting sufficient permission to use songs in the manner you describe, you may need to go to individual copyright owners for each song. There are various licensing organizations (BMI, ASCAP, etc.) that license music for certain types of uses (for example playing in a restaurant or bar), but I don't know off the top of my head if these would fit your situation. Hopefully one of my colleagues here can give you better guidance on that aspect of your question.
The information provided here is general in nature, is not legal advice, and does not create an attorney-client relationship with Will Montague or Montague Law PLLC.
What you're describing probably wouldn't be a "fair use" type of parody. Under the copyright case law, a parody must actually be a parody of the original work in question (i.e., poking fun at, or highlighting aspects, absurdities, etc. in that original work) in order to be considered non-infringing of copyright.
What you're describing is a bit different. Unless I misunderstand, you'll be using the original works (songs), but changing lyrics to comment, poke fun, or point out aspects of the Person who is the subject (target?) of the parody... not the original work itself.
So, it's unlikely that your proposed songs will actually be considered the Parody flavor of Fair Use. (although it's still possible a judge or jury could find them to be Fair Use, on the traditional 4-factor analysis)
Thus, you'll probably need to secure licenses from the music publishers that control the songs. This, of course, will have a cost, so be sure you investigate this, and structure your new business accordingly.
An experienced and knowledgable entertainment lawyer's help will be invaluable in securing the licenses you need.
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In addition to the wise advise given by of my colleagues, you must know that fair use is a defense, not a blanket immunity from prosecution. In layman terms, you may get sued, spend a lot of money proving you are innocent, by arguing fair use, and win the case but loose the attorney fees, time, and internal peace.
In your specific case it seems that fair use will not work, so you need to obtain a license from one of the authors organizations.
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As some one who regularly represents parody artists, I am confident that your use would not constitute parody for purposes of the fair use doctrine. You are making derivative works from the original comment on someone's birthday or graduation---but not to comment upon or ridicule in some way the original work itself. You will need to obtain a license from the songwriters and/or publishers of each song. There is no blanket license for this.
If you just wanted to "cover" the songs in question (with the original lyrics), you would be entitled under the law -- without the permission of the songwriters -- to get a "mechanical" license that would give you the right to create your own version of the song and sell a recorded copy of it for 9 cents.
HOWEVER, because you want to change the lyrics, you need specific permission from the songwriters to do so. And, the price that you would have to pay for such a license (if the songwriters would grant such a license) would have to be negotiated. Moreover, some songwriters might only be comfortable giving you a conditional license, where they would have a right to approve each separate parody before it is "released" to your client.
I agree with my colleagues when they say it is unlikely that what you are proposing would qualify as "fair use" parody. So, even though you would just be making one recorded copy of the song, the legal issues you face are the same ones faced by Weird Al, and like Weird Al you would need permission from the original songwriters/publishers if you want to move forward with your business and not risk being charged with Copyright infringement.
Any answer or other information posted above is general in nature and is not intended, nor should it be construed, as legal advice. This posting does not create an attorney-client relationship between you and the posting attorney, and you are urged to engage a qualified attorney who is licensed to practice in the relevant jurisdiction.
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