Copyright: Changing Lyrics


“Can I change the words of a song?” asked a recent poster on the NAfME general music forum. Copyright questions are often tricky, and that’s why NAfME provides information for members on its Web Copyright Center.

According to “The United States Copyright Law: A Guide for Music Educators,” “Music teachers can edit or simplify purchased, printed copies, provided that the fundamental character of the work is not distorted or the lyrics, if any, are not altered or lyrics added if none exist.”

What does that mean?

Jay Althouse, author of Copyright: The Complete Guide for Music Educators, says, “Any parody lyric or the revision of a lyric that changes the integrity of the work requires authorization from the copyright owner.” He gives an example of a choir writing new words to “Proud to be an American” to sing at graduation.

He adds, “Altering just a few words in a text is another matter. Suppose you want to change just the last text line in a song to personalize it for your group . . . assuming you’ve bought a sufficient number of copies for your group, I’d say go ahead and do it. . . . If you haven’t [bought sufficient copies], then it’s difficult for you to claim a Fair Use exemption. To be extra safe, ask for permission, and chances are you’ll get it.”

How do you ask for permission?

Althouse writes, “First, identify and locate the copyright owner. The copyright notice at the bottom of the first page of music . . . will give you the name of the owner. Sometimes the credits on a CD label or liner will, too.”

You can also contact the American Society of Composers, Authors & Publishers (ASCAP) or Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) with the complete and accurate title and writer information.

Contact the copyright owner and request permission to make a derivative work. Althouse recommends including the following information:

  • The nature of derivation of the original work.
  • How many copies you’ll make.
  • Who will make the change—you or someone for hire?
  • Who will perform the arrangement?
  • Will you sell the arrangement? If so, why and for how much?
  • Is the arrangement for one specific occasion (graduation, winter concert, etc.), or will it become part of your group’s repertoire? 


“The more information you can provide, the better your chances of getting a speedy reply,” writes Althouse, who also advises

  • If permission is granted, get it in writing.
  • If permission is denied, don’t make the change.


For a request form for permission to arrange a piece, see The United States Copyright Law: A Guide for Music Educators, and search for “Appendix D.”

–Linda C. Brown, September 10, 2008 © National Association for Music Education (