Here’s the thing: You don’t need it.
A common misconception in the music industry is that you need to get permission from a copyright owner in order to cover a song. In reality, you can go straight to securing a compulsory mechanical license — required by law as part of the 1909 Copyright Act — and compensating the rights holder for their work.
If you’re not sure whether you need a mechanical or other license to release a cover song, be sure to read our detailed rundown of how you can help protect yourself from potential litigation*....
INCLUDING A COVER SONG ON YOUR OWN ALBUM
You don’t need a license if you are releasing a cover strictly on streaming platforms. Services like Spotify and Apple Music license songs and pay royalties to publishers as part of The MLC (The Mechanical Licensing Collective) that was launched in 2019. This means that artists releasing covers on those platforms are not responsible for any related royalty payments.
If you plan on releasing a cover song as part of a physical and/or downloadable record, you will need a mechanical license. The current statutory rate for mechanical licenses in the US is 9.1 cents per downloaded song or song on a physical album purchase. You can secure this license through Harry Fox Agency's Songfile, Easy Song , or the copyright holder themselves.
If you want to cover a work Songtrust currently administers, you can email us directly instead of contacting a third party service. Distributors like CD Baby will usually help you obtain licenses as well.
If you want to release two different versions of a cover song (live and studio recordings, for instance) you will need to obtain two separate mechanical licenses.
PLAYING A COVER ON YOUTUBE
Because YouTube is a video platform, you should obtain a synchronization license to share a cover on that service. Since this is often unrealistic for independent musicians, YouTube often displays ads on cover videos and pays royalties to the publisher from revenue generated by the clip. While it is therefore possible to release a cover song on YouTube without a sync license, by doing so you are in fact violating the rightsholder’s copyright and they can file a takedown request at any time with YouTube. You can learn more about monetizing content on YouTube here.
One final note: You cannot register a cover song in your Songtrust account even if you obtain the proper licenses or permission from the copyright owner. This is because a cover is not considered a new, original piece of music; since you do not own the work’s copyright, you cannot collect royalties from the underlying composition.
*Disclaimer: This article is for educational and informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. The content contained in this article is not legal advice or a legal opinion on any specific matter or matters.
Want to learn more about sync? Learn the ins and outs of sync licensing, sync deals, and how to start collecting your royalties with our Sync Crash Course.
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