How Do Royalties Work for "Weird Al" Songs?
This week, "Weird Al" Yankovic's Mandatory Fun debuted as the No. 1 album on the Billboard 200. It's Yankovic's first-ever chart-topping album and the first comedy album to hit number one since 1963's My Son, The Nut by Allan Sherman (featuring "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh (A Letter from Camp)," which will be stuck in your head as soon as you finish reading this parenthetical aside).
On Mandatory Fun, Yankovic parodies Pharrell's "Happy" ("Tacky"), Iggy Azalea's "Fancy" ("Handy"), and Lorde's "Royals" ("Foil." It's about aluminum foil and storing leftovers.) The album sold around 104,000 copies in its first week, but do the artists "Weird Al" lampoons get a cut?
"Song parodies can be characterized as fair use," says copyright lawyer Justin Jacobson of The Jacobson Firm. "This is different than recording cover songs, which would require the person covering the song to obtain a mechanical license through the Harry Fox Agency, permitting the artist to create a new version of the original song."
Despite being in the clear, legally, "Weird Al" goes out of his way to shore it up with the artists. "Al does get permission from the original writers of the songs that he parodies," says the archived official "Weird Al" website. "He feels it's important to maintain the relationships that he's built with artists and writers over the years. Plus, Al wants to make sure that he gets his songwriter credit (as writer of new lyrics) as well as his rightful share of the royalties."
Those royalty shares can vary. In a 1991 law journal abstract, "Stranger in Parodies: Weird Al and the Law of Musical Satire," it's revealed that royalties are "done on a negotiated basis with terms of compensation varying from a flat fee buyout to royalty participation." Chuck Hurewitz, Yankovic's lawyer at the time, asserts that "Weird Al's substantial market success is responsible for the willingness of copyright owners to grant him permission to parody their musical compositions, and has made it possible for Yankovic to bargain for a lucrative share in the copyright of the parody version of the song."
The only artist to constantly and repeatedly turn "Weird Al" down? Prince. Don't hold your breath waiting for "Raspberry Soufflé" to come out.