Disclaimer: This is an overview of licensing and copyrighting, for reference – not legal advice.
Copyright law is a minefield and failure to play by the rules can land you in hot water.
There are many myths and misconceptions about what is and isn’t allowed and the law differs considerably between the UK and US. For example, the US operates “Fair Use”, while the UK abides by “Fair Dealing”. This means that while you might be able to justify using a copyrighted work in the US, any unauthorized use of copyrighted material in the UK constitutes an infringement.
However, everybody loves a good cover song. So, here’s a quick guide to staying on the right side of the law when covering your favourite number.
Songs are divided into two aspects: the lyrics and melody (the composition), and the recording.
Compositions are protected by mechanical rights, while the original recordings are covered by master recording rights. In order to use either part of a song, you will need to acquire the relevant license(s).
In the industry, the intellectual proprietor(s) owns 100% of the mechanical and master recording rights. This sometimes confuses people, who regard the rights as 50:50 but they are two separate lots of rights that apply to the same asset; in this case, a song. All recordings are covered by both to protect owner(s) against copyright infringement.
However, unless you are sampling the original recording in your cover version, you only need to worry about obtaining a mechanical license.
A mechanical license permits you to produce audio-recorded covers of a copyrighted composition (you need a synchronisation license to use a track on a video) and ensures that – with the assistance of collection agencies – royalties go to the songwriter(s), lyricist and/or composer. Sometimes these payments are split between other parties, such as the band or the label etc.
FACT: Sadly, average earnings in royalties only stand between 18 to 45 pence (22 to 56 cents) per song. That quickly becomes much less once it’s been split between everyone involved.
Recording A Cover
As we’ve already established, in order to record a cover song you must get permission from the rightsholder in the form of a compulsory mechanical license. The rightsholder is obligated to grant you a license providing the following conditions are met:
- The song has already been recorded and made publicly available: if not, the songwriter is allowed to choose who records the number first.
- You only audio record the song – music videos are not covered by this license
- You do not drastically alter the tune or words; though you are permitted to put your own spin on it
Third Party Distribution Platforms
You need to obtain the mechanical license before distributing your cover, using sites such as Easy Song Licensing. But, if you’re still feeling bamboozled, you could also consider using an all-inclusive distributor, such as Distrokid, that sorts licensing so you don’t have to worry.
Exceptions to the rules:
- When using some user-generated content platforms, the mechanical licensing is already covered. For example, you can upload videos and cover songs to YouTube without impinging on copyright
- If you want perform a cover song live – sit back and relax… UK venues should already have a PRS license to cover this, and US venues should have a PRO license. Do check before you rock up to perform!