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muliticolor representation of Dolly Parton (left) and Whitney Houston (right)

Celebrating Women Through Their Copyright Story: Dolly Parton and Whitney Houston

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More than once, a cover of a hit song has become an even bigger hit than the original. According to American Songwriter, it happened with songs such as “Respect” (written and originally recorded by Otis Redding, remake by Aretha Franklin), “All Along the Watchtower” (written and originally recorded by Bob Dylan, remake by Jimi Hendrix), and “Nothing Compares 2 U” (written and originally recorded by Prince, remake by Sinead O’Connor). And it happened with “I Will Always Love You” (written and originally recorded by Dolly Parton, remake by Whitney Houston), which is featured in the Find Yourself in Copyright exhibit in the Library of Congress Madison building and this blog celebrating Women’s History Month.

Dolly Parton, a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, has been writing and recording songs since the 1970s. Parton wrote “I Will Always Love You,” and the words and musical composition were registered with the Copyright Office in 1973. Whitney Houston, who put her own style and powerful vocals into some of the most popular recordings of all time, wasn’t the first person to record a cover of the song. Linda Ronstadt (1975), Saskia & Serge (1976), Jimmie Peters (1978), Caroline Du Preez (1979), and Kenny Rogers (1983) all previously recorded the song. After Houston’s megahit, the 1992 edition, the Office’s records reflect more than 100 recordings by other artists. So, who owns the copyright to “I Will Always Love You”?

As the songwriter, Dolly Parton is the copyright owner of the lyrics and musical composition. But her original sound recording of the song, sometimes referred to in the music industry as a “master,” is a separate work that receives its own copyright protection. Copyright Registration of Musical Compositions and Sound Recordings (Circular 56A) explains the difference, for copyright purposes, between musical compositions and sound recordings and provides information on registering both types of works either separately or in a single application.

As the copyright owner of the musical composition (including lyrics) for “I Will Always Love You,” Parton has the exclusive right to allow others to make derivative works, but doesn’t own the copyright in those derivative works—so she is not the owner of Whitney Houston’s sound recording of “I Will Always Love You.” Copyright ownership for derivative works belongs to the individual or business that contributed sufficiently original material to qualify as a new original work.

As the singer-songwriter, Parton has the right to control the publishing rights to the musical composition. In 2006, she told CMT that Elvis Presley wanted to record “I Will Always Love You,” but Presley’s manager wanted half of the publishing rights in exchange for recording the song. Parton said she would not give up half the publishing for the song, and told W magazine, “I had to keep that copyright in my pocket.” Needless to say, Elvis never recorded the song. Turns out that was the right call—Parton mused in the CMT interview, “Then when Whitney [Houston’s version] came out, I made enough money to buy Graceland.”

For additional resources on copyright in musical compositions and sound recordings, check out our previous blog post on music royalties.

Women creators are an essential part of our copyright system, as they produce new works and reimagine others to move culture forward. Participating in the copyright system allows women artists to benefit economically from their creative works. In 2022, the Copyright Office released a report, Women in the Copyright System: An Analysis of Women Authors in Copyright Registrations from 1978 to 2020, which found that women creators are significantly underrepresented in registrations, especially in comparison to their participation in copyright-intensive industries. This gender gap has shrunk over time, but there is still work to be done. The Copyright Office’s Strategic Plan places a strong emphasis on the concept of copyright for all. This means working to make the copyright system as understandable and accessible to as many members of the public as possible, including individuals and small entities as well as historically underserved communities.

Find Yourself in Copyright explores how U.S. copyright law has evolved and how the millions of copyright claims registered with the Office illustrate the varied nature of original works. Once the Library of Congress’s Madison Building fully opens to the public, you can visit the exhibit on the fourth floor. In the meantime, you can explore the exhibit’s companion website.

An earlier version of this blog noted a 1973 registration date for “I Will Always Love You,” and the Office has since clarified that the registration was for the musical composition and lyrics.

Comments (9)

  1. So this got me wondering about a published and copyrighted non-fiction book. The book was published in 1985 and the author passed away in 2012. Facts; there are numerous mistakes in this history book that have come to light since 1985, the book is out of print, the historical society that owns the copyright are supposedly having issues finding a printer, and the book is in extremely high demand (getting over $100 for used editions in good condition and the book is just a history of a small community which is mostly unknown). My question; because there are so many errors, would I be able to rewrite the book with all of the known errors corrected and publish it myself with a new copyright?

    • Editorial revisions or other modifications to a preexisting work may be registered as a derivative literary work if the author contributed a sufficient amount of new material to the work. Specifically, the author must contribute new text or revised text to the preexisting work, and the text must possess a sufficient amount of written expression. Merely correcting errors in spelling, punctuation, grammar, or making other minor changes, revisions, or other modifications to a preexisting work do not satisfy this requirement. Only the owner of copyright in a work has the right to prepare, or to authorize someone else to create, a derivative work. For more information, please see Circular 14 ( or consult your copyright lawyer.

  2. And let’s not forget Diane Warren: She’s a super-talented & prolific songwriter who has many top-selling songs. Searching the USCO’s Public Catalog, it appears all of her song authorships are registered via “Diane Warren Trust d/b/a Realsongs.”

    “How Do I Live” (1997), LeAnn Rimes / Trisha Yearwood;

    “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” (1998), Aerosmith;

    “If I Could Turn Back Time” (1989), Cher;

    “Rhythm of the Night” (1985), DeBarge;

    “I Get Weak” (1987), Belinda Carlisle;

    “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” (1987), Starship; and

    “I Don’t Wanna Live Without Your Love” (1988), Chicago.


    • Yes, Diane Warren is a great female songwriter! We featured her, and other talented females, in a 2018 Copyright Lore

  3. I sang a song with Dolly. We were in a movie.

  4. Many of Bob Dylan’s songs have been covered by the other artists, case in point, his 30th Anniversary special.

  5. Dolly wrote I will always love you in 1973 and it was released in March 1974. Priscilla said Elvis sang it to her leaving court after their divorce October 9,1973. This was also in the Elvis movie. This timing seems to be a little off to me.

  6. I’m curious, so how does that work exactly? If Dolly is the copyright owner of the musical composition (including lyrics) does she get a percentage off of the sound recording that Whitney made and owns? Is that something that is negotiated and is different in every situation? I find copyright law fascinating!

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