The Times They Are a-Changin’

(Hello world! This is the first post on this blog.)


Copyright law is complicated, and makes things complicated.

In 2012, the lead minister of my congregation (the First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego) wanted to have a service that incorporated the music of Bob Dylan. The director of the JUUL Tones, the a-cappella group I sing with, wanted to perform The Times They Are a-Changin’, but could not find an SATB or SAB arrangement of it.

I composed an arrangement (and wrote it down, which may have been illegal, depending on how strictly you read copyright law), and contacted Bob Dylan’s Special Rider Music, which owns the copyright to the piece, at the phone number listed on their SESAC page. The woman who I talked with was very polite, and when I explained that I wanted to perform an arrangement of The Times They Are a-Changin’ for a church service, she said to just go ahead, with perhaps a slight tone of “why are you bothering me with this?” in her voice.

(It is legal to perform copyrighted music in church services without getting permission from the copyright holder, but I was making an arrangement and printing it out for the singers, which is why I wanted to check with Special Rider. Of course, you might ask how anyone could perform any piece without it being somehow an arrangement…)

A couple of years later, when our lead minister was going to retire, our a-cappella group wanted to sing the song again at his farewell gathering. This time we would not be covered by the religious service exemption, so I called Special Rider Music again, and then got in touch by email with Will Schwartz, one of the people there. He said that for this piece “there’s no license for performance rights. [Y]ou can go ahead and perform.” If we wanted to record a performance, we would have to pay a statutory rate of 9.1 cents per distributed copy, but he said we could make the recording and contact him afterwards. So we were clear to sing the piece at the farewell gathering.

But I was also interested in making the sheet music available to other musicians, in case anyone else would like to sing an a-cappella version of The Times…. I asked Mr. Schwartz about this, and he said to contact Kevin McGee at Music Sales Corporation.

The powers that be in the music world seem to find a request to distribute sheet music to be unusual. I submitted a permissions request, and when Music Sales Corporation finally got back to me (after 10 months and two followup emails), they sent me a proposed license to perform and record the piece, with permission to create 10 copies of the sheet music to be distributed to the members of the JUUL Tones. This was not at all what I asked for, or was hoping to get.

Fortunately, Duron Bentley, the colleague of Kevin McGee’s who I was now in touch with, kindly and patiently kept up the conversation as I tried to explain what it was I was hoping to do. Initially, he said that they would not be able to modify the license to let me print out more than 10 copies of the music, and he suggested that if another group wanted the music, they should contact him to obtain a license.

Finally, though, when I explained that no license is needed to perform works in worship services, he was willing to modify the license to let me print more copies of the music (on condition that I send Music Sales Corporation $1.50 for each copy). He did ask that each copy of the music carry the following notice (in addition to the copyright notice):

This arrangement may not be duplicated, promoted, sold or otherwise made available to any third party. This includes all recordings, social media, personal websites, YouTube and the like. Performance is permitted only during a religious service. Please contact Music Sales Corporation for permission to create an arrangement.

The restriction on performance seemed to be in conflict with what Will Schwartz had told me earlier, so I asked for some clarification. Mr. Bentley had not known that the copyright holders were not asking for performance licenses, he gave me words for a modified notice. Here is the final version:

This arrangement may not be duplicated, promoted, sold or otherwise made available to any third party without further permission from the publisher, Special Rider Music. This includes all recordings, social media, personal websites, YouTube and the like. Please contact Music Sales Corporation for permission to create an arrangement.

That seems reasonable enough. I preface the notice by saying “I have to put this notice here,” and suggest that people consult copyright attorneys to determine their rights. Also, I mention that Special Rider Music does not require further license for live performances.

So, in the end? I think I did everything in accordance with copyright law. It took a year of waiting, and some persistence, and $275 for the general license plus $1.50 for each copy I print, but… I did everything in accordance with copyright law. Perhaps this was a little silly, because there’s no indication that anyone wants this sheet music, but I thought it would be an interesting experiment to try. Besides, this way I won’t feel guilty about depriving Bob Dylan of his retirement income.

Interested in seeing the music? That would make me happy. Please get in touch with me.


(Note: Bob Dylan himself is not so careful about copyright issues…)


Photo credit: Rowland Scherman. The image is in the public domain, and is part of the U.S. National Archives. More information here.

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