Is That All There Is to Compulsory License?

When Leiber and Stoller wrote “Is That All There Is?” they thought its Berlin cabaret sound would be perfect for German chanteuse Marlene Dietrich so they contacted her through her former bandleader, Burt Bacharach. Dietrich passed on the pseudo-lied, however, saying. “That song . . . is who I am, not what I do.”*

Eventually, the song made its way to Peggy Lee, becoming her last top-40 hit:

I always understood compulsory license to mean any artist could record any previously recorded song** . . .

“A compulsory cover license allows an artist to legally sell their rendition or ‘cover’ of another song based on a set royalty payment scale. A compulsory license is obtainable for any song that has already been previously recorded and sold with the consent of the original musical composition copyright holder.”

. . . so I never quite understood how Leiber and Stoller managed to get “disco clone” Cristina‘s perverse cover of the song . . .

. . . withdrawn:

“Celebrated songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were so furious when the original lyrics of their 1969 Grammy-winner: “Then I fell in love with the most wonderful boy in the world. We would take long walks by the river or just sit for hours gazing into each other’s eyes. We were so very much in love’ became ‘And then I met the most wonderful boy in Manhattan. We used to walk by the river, and he beat me black and blue and I loved it. I could kill for that guy,’ that they had an injunction against the recording that lasted for 24 years.”

Apparently, songwriters do have one recourse for covers they dislike:

“[I]f the cover alters the original song in any significant way. The compulsory cover license only applies to covers that are consistent with the original rendition of the song. Therefore, remixed or off-the-wall covers of songs may not be applicable under a compulsory cover license.”


* p. 241, Leiber, J., & Stoller, M.  (2009). Hound dog: The Leiber & Stoller autobiography. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks

** The songwriter retains the right to choose who records a song first, a right Bob Dylan asserted in regard to his song “Mr. Tambourine Man.”

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