How to Legally Cover a Song

Cover a song

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Perhaps inspired by the recent rash of high-profile copyright cases, a bunch of our favorite music blogs have lately been providing interesting tips for legally recording and performing covers of other musician’s songs.

Unlike the more complicated forms of musical imitation involved in those lawsuits, covering a song is actually quite straightforward.

A “cover” is a new performance of a previously recorded song by someone other than the original artist with the lyrics and basic melody left intact.

In an op-ed arguing for new regulation that encourages both musical collaboration and acknowledging ownership, Pitchfork explains just how clear-cut the rules about covering a song are:


There are rules about cover versions […] The system is called compulsory licensing. […] Anyone can cover anyone else’s song, and its creator cannot say no (that’s the compulsory part). But if you do cover a song, you must pay a royalty to the song’s creator (that’s the licensing part). What’s more, the royalty rate is always the same—it’s “statutory,” meaning fixed and not subject to individual negotiation—no matter who covers the song and how many (or few) copies they sell. The statutory rate is set by a board of arbitrators, three “copyright royalty judges” appointed by the Librarian of Congress, and is adjusted from time to time to maintain its relative value.

There’s little room for lawyers or lawsuits in this system, because the rules are clear and universally applied.

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The article covers the history of the most common kind of license you’ll need to release a cover: the mechanical license. It actually dates back to the days of player pianos, when you were literally reproducing the sound of the song mechanically!

Hypebot explains how a mechanical license works:


Once an artist releases their musical work, anyone can create and distribute their own sound recording of the work (i.e. release a ‘cover’) as long they secure a mechanical license and pay the owner of the musical work a ‘mechanical royalty’ (currently 9.1 ¢ per copy of the song).

These days, getting a mechanical license to reproduce a song is incredibly simple. Ari Herstand reviewed three services who will help acquire that license for around $15: Loudr, Songfile, and Easy Song Licensing.

Ari's Take

The biggest difference between Loudr, Easy Song Licensing and Songfile is that Songfile will only issue licenses for songs they represent. HFA [who run Songfile] represents most publishers (in America), but not all. So if you want to cover an obscure German band (with no US representation) or a hot indie act out of Boston who doesn’t have a publisher, you wouldn’t be able to through HFA. Loudr and Easy Song Licensing will hunt these licenses down for you.

Using these services, you estimate how many downloads/CDs you will sell and pay that amount x 9.1 cents (the mechanical royalty rate set by the US government – if the song is under 5 minutes). So if you think you’ll sell 1,000 downloads of your Oasis cover, you would pay $91 up front + the service fee. Every service will then pass 100% of those royalties along to Oasis’ publisher. […]

Songfile and Easy Song Licensing will only issue licenses up to 2,500 downloads. If you need more you have to go directly to the publisher. Loudr currently offers up to 5,000 downloads through their system, but if you need more you can email them directly at [email protected].

But there is a common case where you might need more than just a mechanical license. If you want to post a video of your cover to YouTube and you think there’s a chance more than a few people will watch it, you’ll need a synchronization license, which covers the combination of the sound with a visual experience.

MakeUseOf shared two scenarios for posting cover songs to YouTube:

Make Use Of

To The Unknown Artist: I’m not condoning breaking the law. But the reality is that – with the constant flow of unsolicited uploads and covers of popular music – yours is likely not going to be caught in the music business fishnet. […]

To The Moderately-To-Very-Well-Known Artist: What’s your YouTube view count? Maybe 7000 to 10000 views? More? Awesome. Well… this means you’re getting some attention, and this also means there’s more of a chance that your covers will get some legal attention. […]

Typically, in order to acquire a sync license, you just need to ask the publisher. Unfortunately, there are no set prices for this kind of thing – we don’t even have a pricing scale available! Sometimes you can get it for free, and other times it’s going to cost you dearly. Hopefully, it won’t be the latter.

Odds are, your cover video isn’t going to get you sued. But there are a number of reports out there of YouTube pulling videos and even shutting down accounts because of copyright infringement, seemingly arbitrarily, so you may want to consider a sync license, even if you only have a few subscribers.

So how do you find out who to contact in order to acquire that sync license?

Sonic Bids has that problem covered with an exhaustive list of tools for researching who owns the copyright to just about any song you can think of:

  • ASCAP ACE Database – This is a go-to source of information about writers, performers, publishers, and alternate titles for copyrighted songs from both ASCAP and non-ASCAP affiliates.[…]
  • ISWC (International Standard Musical Work Code) – This is another option to find the creators, performers, and alternate titles of works, as well as their ISWC number.[…]
  • United States Copyright Office Public Catalog (online) – This catalog includes works registered with the US Copyright Office from 1978 onward.[…]
  • Library of Congress Audio Collection via SONIC (Sound ONline Inventory and Catalog) – Like the US Copyright Office catalog, SONIC will give you information about audio works that have been registered for copyright purposes.[…]
  • Worldcat – Designed to help you find items in libraries near you (including university libraries that may have robust sheet music and recording collections), this database can also help you find out more about performers, record labels, and publishers of music and recordings.[…]
  • […]more importantly for copyright researchers, it provides a “credits” section where it may list many of the professionals involved with creating an album, including the producer, other musicians, and the primary artist/band.

Similar advice goes for performing a cover live. If you have under a few thousand people at your show and you aren’t recording and distributing the performance, you’ll probably fly under the radar. But if you’re playing a major show or recording video for wide distribution, you’ll need to reach out to the song’s publisher or one of the major performing rights organizations (ASCAPBMI, and SESAC) about getting the appropriate permission. (Here’s an exhaustive explanation of the subject.)

And there you have it! It may not be the easiest system to navigate, but thankfully, it seems every music publication out there is ready to lend a hand with all the resources you need to keep you out of trouble and, most importantly, help you give just a little back to the artists who inspire you the most!

Do you have any other resources you use to navigate music copyright? Share them in the comments!

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