Can I Record Someone Else's Song and Change the Words in Parody Law?

By Michelle Hart

United States copyright law grants legal protection to various creative works, including songs or lyrics. Under The Copyright Act of 1976, copyright holders have exclusive rights to reproduce their creations for a specific length of time. Those exclusive rights are limited by the doctrine of “fair use,” which allows for others to reproduce a work in whole or in part for use in a parody without the copyright holder’s permission, provided the parody meets certain criteria.


In the 1980s, a legal battle between hip-hop group 2 Live Crew and "Pretty Woman" singer Roy Orbison's publishing company set the standard for musical parody law in the United States. In Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., the U.S. Supreme Court defined a parody as “the use of some elements of a prior author's composition to create a new one that, at least in part, comments on that author's works.”

Fair Use Criteria

The Copyright Act of 1976 -- 17 U.S.C. §107 -- outlines four factors to be considered when determining whether a reproduction of a copyrighted work is fair use. Courts examine the “purpose and character of the use,” the “nature of the copyrighted work,” the “amount and sustainability of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole,” and “the effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work.”

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Application of Fair Use

In determining whether a parody is fair use, the courts ask whether the parody is being used for commercial gain; whether the parody makes a reference to the original work; how much of the original work was reproduced in the creation of the parody; and whether the integrity, value or benefit derived by the copyright holder from the original work can be sustained despite the existence of the parody. Songs by the parody artist Weird Al Yankovic demonstrate widely accepted applications of the doctrine of fair use.

True Parodies Not Considered Violations

True parodies are among the few types of derivative works that do not require copyright holders to give permission to use their work. To be considered a true parody, a creative work must imitate the style of a musical artist or his songs for comic effect, or with the intention of ridiculing the original artist or work. Satires, or reproductions with the intent of criticizing some aspect of the original, are not protected under the fair use doctrine. Anyone concerned about potential claims for copyright infringement as a result of parody production or distribution should consult an intellectual property attorney experienced in musical copyright law.

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