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 it was 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.