Some friends of mine are developing an indie visual novel, so I thought I would contribute a few tracks. Inspiration struck me while working on other stuff, so I ended up creating a slowed-down, ambient rearrangement of a famous alt-rock song from the late '80s.

The rearrangement includes, among other things:

  • slowing down the tempo by a factor of ~4 (which obviously means I didn't really work with the whole song, but only rewrote the intro and the main riff);
  • writing in triplet swing tempo, while the original has a straight pulse;
  • a significantly different choice in instruments, with no singing voice line at all and the addition of several synth pads for a more ambient-y feel;
  • detuning the main riff for the finale.

The end result is almost unrecognizable - unless you speed the track back up to the original tempo, in which case the bass and the riff as used towards the end make it pretty obvious where it comes from, despite the detuning.

Would such a track be useable in a potentially commercial videogame without having to pay royalties to the original songwriters? Like, where's the boundary between a derivative work and an original composition when the rearrangement is very invasive to the point of the track being unrecognizable unless you listened very carefully?

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    Why not make it really unrecognizable? Mar 31 '20 at 10:48
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    I have a hunch this belongs better in Legal SE, to the point that this may get moved, but my gut feeling is no: a group of people will recognize where you got the music from and one of them may sue. Among other cases I've seen are that the GameCube menu theme is a greatly slowed-down version of the Famicom start-up theme, the seemingly endless list of Toby Fox's quotations of his own works (found anywhere from his Undertale and Deltarune OSTs to a more embarrassing one in his Pokemon Sword and Shield Battle Tower theme)...
    – Dekkadeci
    Mar 31 '20 at 10:54
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    My advice is: don't ask strangers on the internet. Ask a lawyer. One well versed in IP law. If you can't afford a lawyer, don't venture in gray areas and just use music you're sure you can use (i.e. your own, public domain, creative commons, music you have explicit consent for using...) Mar 31 '20 at 10:59
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    @guidot - thanks for that link. I added a comment at the bottom of the accepted answer for clarification. On this question, though, we have a completely different situation. In the UK, by substantially altering the song, you not only have to report it, but you must get permission to release it at all. It's the 'substantial' part that makes all the difference. You will definitely need a lawyer for this. Don't even attempt to just DIY it &/or hope no-one notices.
    – Tetsujin
    Mar 31 '20 at 11:25
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    I'm going to throw that in an an answer.
    – Tetsujin
    Mar 31 '20 at 11:27

Late edit
Re the other, anonymous, answer
Of course you have to pay [If I hadn't already made that clear]
The main issue is whether you will be allowed to use it at all, if you've heavily modified it.

This will vary by territory. I only know the UK stance on this, however…

In the UK, you need no permission to simply cover a song. It is a legal requirement to fully credit the original composer/author on any release. The usual reporting & payment will be handled by the relevant authorities, PRS/PPL/MCPS etc at home & abroad.
By substantially altering the song, however, you not only have to report it, but you must get permission to release it at all. It's the 'substantial' part that makes all the difference.

You will definitely need a lawyer for this.
Don't even attempt to just DIY it &/or hope no-one notices

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    Thanks. I live in Italy, but this answer was still very useful because it sparked a new question. Which country's laws would I have to abide by? The country where the original song was copyrighted? My country? The one where my friends developing the VN live? Countries where they will be making the game available by digital distribution? This sounds like quite the thorny subject. Mar 31 '20 at 11:39
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    That's why you need a lawyer, not the advice of random interweb guys ;) You will definitely need to cover your own territory's laws, which are probably common to the entire EU. The UK law is also very probably [but I'm not a lawyer] very very similar to the rest of the EU, as we only parted company 3 months ago.
    – Tetsujin
    Mar 31 '20 at 11:41

The answer by Tetsujin is not wrong but extremely misleading. It is correct, as they state, that you don't need permission in the UK to cover a song. However, that was not the question. The question was "Would such a track be useable in a potentially commercial videogame without having to pay royalties to the original songwriters?" and the answer to that is "no". While the local copyright laws grant automatic permission for covering a copyrighted song, they do so in return for a similarly automatic requirement to pay royalties.

The amount to which substantial changes impege upon the original author's personality rights such that they can demand you to stop performing something to the detriment of their reputation is varying a lot among local jurisdictions. The requirement for royalties, however, is internationally quite the same.

There are some "fair use" or similar exceptions, again depending on local legislation, but those tend to concern educational use, news reporting, library copies and some other things. Derivative use in a video game would almost certainly not be covered.

  • Thank you for your answer, although to be fair this would not constitute a cover, but more of a derivative work of the composition. My basis for this claim would be that what I am working on is an instrumental track which teases the main riff of a known song at 1/4x speed for the entirety of the track and then, once you do finally get it, it's detuned and "just wrong" to the point of leaving you unsatisfied, because it's not what you expected. Can I assume that what you said also applies to derivative works? Mar 31 '20 at 12:45
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    This is one of the few times where it is most definitely not easier to apologise afterwards than to ask permission first. You need a lawyer.
    – Tetsujin
    Mar 31 '20 at 12:49
  • Yeah, I guess this means it would most definitely be a lot easier for me to hack away at my work until it was no longer a derivative work at all... which means it's probably time for me to ask a new question about that! Thanks a lot. Mar 31 '20 at 12:55
  • There are two entities here: the song lyrics and the music. It may have been written by two different people or it may be the same person.
    – cup
    Apr 1 '20 at 4:37
  • @cup The song lyrics are not really relevant in my case, as I am working on instrumental background music, but you are making a really good point. Thank you for pointing it out. Apr 1 '20 at 9:27

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