Recording and releasing a cover song is a great way to gain exposure as an artist, since it can serve as a gateway into your original material.
One way to achieve this end is to do what the likes of Pomplamoose and Igor Presnykov have done – reinterpreting songs in their own unique ways and publishing them to YouTube.
Another is to record and distribute a song that isn’t your own on one of your releases.
But what about the legalities of song covers? Do you need permission before publishing content that features other people’s intellectual property? Let’s take a look.
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Not All Musicians Gets Permission To Do Cover Songs, Why Should I?
First of all, it doesn't matter if it's recorded or live, the same legality applies in terms of whether you need permission to cover another musician's song.
Moving on, I already made reference to the fact that a lot of known artists are publishing cover songs to their YouTube channels. And we can also see that many artists have recorded songs that aren’t their own and have released on singles, EPs and albums (i.e. Jimi Hendrix’ cover of “All Along The Watchtower”, originally by Bob Dylan).
So you might be thinking, “there’s no harm in recording someone else’s song”, right? Not so fast.
As far as publishing videos go, we can see from YouTube’s own FAQ that recording a cover song doesn’t necessarily give you the right to upload your video. At the same time, there are plenty of videos that have yet to be flagged or even removed from the site, which is why there might be some confusion. I’ll explain why that is in a second.
YouTube says, and I quote, “You may need permission from the owner” of the music. Nice and ambiguous.
The short version is that some publishers have signed and agreed to a deal that entitles them to 50% of revenue generated from cover songs. But we don’t necessarily have access to who those publishers are, meaning some artists are within their rights. But others will get pursued by intellectual property owners, or become banned from YouTube altogether if they incur too many strikes (they have a three-strike policy).
Other copyright holders simply don’t mind the additional attention their music gets when someone publishes a cover and will not come after you, especially if it isn’t making anyone any money. This, however, doesn’t mean you’ve been given permission to cover the song.
And when it comes to recoding and distributing covers on a single, EP or album, that dynamic remains more or less the same, with the caveat that money tends to enter the picture a lot faster with a formal release.
So What’s The Issue? Will I Get Into Legal Trouble If I Make A Song Cover?
Before we go any further, there are a couple of things you should be aware of:
- I’m not a lawyer, so don’t take what I say as legal advice or gospel truth. In any situation where you’re unsure of what your rights are, please go through the proper legal channels to determine your next course of action.
- In general, we strongly recommend going through the right services and channels to get permission to publish cover songs.
On YouTube, even if you publish a cover without getting permission, you probably won’t get sued. This only happens in extreme situations, meaning it’s always a remote possibility, but unless you’re earning a lot of money from said cover, you probably aren’t going to get yourself into a mess of trouble.
The bigger risk is typically with accumulating “three strikes”, after which YouTube will terminate your account. And that’s simply not worth the hassle.
In my experience, the law is a lot less lenient with selling cover songs. I would not suggest recording and selling cover songs unless you’ve obtained a mechanical license (but in some cases, if you save the royalties due to the copyright holder and present the money when requested, you’ll be fine).
What To Do To Avoid Complications & Getting Licenses
There are a few services and resources I’m going to recommend, but first, I’ll share a simple tactic for avoiding future complications: research.
I’ve already talked about the fact that some publishers have agreements with YouTube. In some cases, you may not have to go through a lengthy procedure to get the permission you need to cover a song. But other publishers might require you to agree to their specific terms.
With regards to selling cover songs, you’ll almost certainly want to get your mechanical license,
But in general, do your research, ask questions, and cover your butt. That’s your first line of defense.
With that out of the way, let’s explore a few different services and resources you can use to obtain licenses:
- Harry Fox Agency: HFA is a valuable resource for musicians looking to find out what kind of license they need (if you’re looking to publish a cover song to YouTube, it’s a sync license). Their website actually does a pretty good job of walking you through the difference steps, and explains, in simple terms, how you can go about obtaining a license. With a sync license, you’ll probably need to contact publishers directly.
- Easy Song Licensing: another place you can go to obtain licenses. Their tagline is “clear any song in 1-2 days.” According to Easy Song Licensing, sync licenses are always custom-negotiated, which means that permission can be denied, and the copyright holder can place any demands on you as they see fit.
- Loudr: another service that handles cover song licensing.
The Two Types Of Licenses You Should Know About
I’ve mentioned licenses a few times throughout this guide, so I thought I should define the most relevant ones here. They are:
- Mechanical license: this is the license you’ll need to obtain if you’re looking to cover a song and sell it. Mechanical licenses do not apply to video content, and you will require a sync license if you want to publish videos with cover songs in them.
- Sync license: this the license you need if you’re planning on covering a song and publishing it to YouTube.
Do You Need Permission To Cover A Song, Final Thoughts
Cover songs can help you gain fans, but be sure not to abuse the system. Research, do your due diligence, and get the proper license for your particular situation.
In most cases, you will need permission to make a cover song. Don’t be caught without the right agreements in place.