Music rights are complicated. Often, it’s tough for an artist and their team to keep track of their own copyright, let alone introducing covers into the mix.
Cover is a word that’s thrown around a lot in music, but what it actually is, and the legality behind creating or authorizing one, is often convoluted. In this post, we’ll break down exactly what it means to cover a song and what you need to do to legally release one on platforms like Apple, Spotify, SoundCloud and YouTube.
Note: Before reading this post, we highly recommend familiarizing yourself with Music Publishing 101.
Part I: What is a cover?
By definition, a cover song is a new performance or recording of a previously recorded, commercially released song by someone other than the original artist or composer.
To take it a little bit further — Whenever an artist performs their own rendition a song they didn’t originally release, that’s a cover.
If a someone writes a song intended for a particular artist and that particular artist releases a recording of it with the proper permissions, this isn’t a cover, this is an example of a recording artist working with songwriters. Usually in this instance, the person who wrote the song will receive credit and a split of publishing earnings, or the song will be purchased outright from them.
Part II: What should I do before releasing a cover?
Short answer: secure your licenses.
There are levels to this, of course, depending on where you will be releasing your cover song. To post the audio only on places like iTunes, Apple Music, SoundCloud & Spotify, you will need a mechanical license. To post your cover song in a video on YouTube, you will need both a mechanical license and a synchronization license.
What’s a mechanical license and where do I get one?
A mechanical license grants the rights to reproduce and distribute copyrighted musical compositions. Once a song is released, the use of its composition (melody and lyrics) is fair game as long as a mechanical license is procured.
This license is usually purchased for a fee that accounts for the mechanical royalties the cover will generate for a certain number of downloads and streams. If the song in question is public domain or royalty-free (learn more about that here), you don’t need to obtain a mechanical license.
To secure a mechanical license, you can go through companies like Harry Fox Agency (HFA) and Loudr, or go directly to the song’s publisher and inquire about a mechanical license.
Conversely, you can also register your own songs with HFA or Loudr, so that they can manage issuing mechanical licenses and collecting royalties for covers of your original compositions on your behalf.
What is a synchronization license and where do I get one?
A synchronization license grants you permission to use your cover song (or any song you don’t own) in a video, enabling you to upload it to YouTube. Note that you must do this in order to legally sync (see where it got its name from?) unoriginal music to a visual media output.
Sync licenses don’t have a standardized fee structure, and must be acquired directly from the publisher that owns the composition in question. How much you’ll pay for one depends on the popularity of the song, how it will be used and how long the track is, among other factors.
Part III: Can’t I just *not* do all this extra work?
While sometimes, it’s better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission, that notion is completely invalidated when it comes to music rights. Do it right in the beginning, and avoid legal trouble (i.e. getting sued by the copyright owner) or getting banned from streaming platforms.
Can a platform really ban me for copyright violations?
Yes, they can.
When you upload content to platforms like Apple Music, Spotify, SoundCloud and YouTube, you are agreeing to their terms of service as well as their legal policies, which comply with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The DMCA limits the liability of service providers in cases of copyright violation, and does not require them to monitor their platform for infringing content. However, each platform gives users who feel as though their copyright is being infringed upon the opportunity to file legal claims.
Each service has their own process for reporting copyright infringement and handling repeat offenders — here’s what you need to know:
Apple Music & iTunes
Apple’s legal policy does not specify if repeat copyright infringers will be terminated from their platform, but it’s safe to say you probably shouldn’t test that.
Copyright infringement claims can be made to Apple here, and you can read more about Apple’s Legal Policy for Intellectual Property here.
Spotify’s Copyright Policy states, “We should also let you know that Spotify has a policy to terminate in appropriate circumstances the accounts of subscribers who are repeat infringers.”
So, while they may not quantify how many repeats it takes to get the boot, we recommend just not violating the policy to begin with.
Copyright infringement claims can be made to Spotify here, and you can read more about their Copyright Policy here.
You can report copyright infringement to SoundCloud here.
YouTube has a copyright takedown policy that allows creators to submit claims on any videos that may be infringing their copyright.
YouTube outlines its copyright basics in this handy video
There are two ways a video can get taken down on YouTube:
Takedown Notice: This is occurs when a copyright owner submits an infringement notification to the platform, notifying both parties and initiating a legal process that is reviewed by YouTube. If a false claim is made, it can result in the filer’s account getting suspended or other legal consequences. Valid takedown notices result in Copyright Strikes. Receiving three Copyright Strikes will result in the violator getting banned from YouTube.
Content ID Claim: Content ID is YouTube’s fingerprinting system that enables creators to control the use of their content on the platform (read our Content ID 101 here). If a content owner has registered their intellectual property with Content ID and issued a block policy, any videos that contain even a portion of that intellectual property will be removed, and the uploader will not be penalized. If you receive a Content ID claim on your video and feel it is incorrect, you have the opportunity to file a dispute. Learn more about Content ID claims here.
If Content ID claims a cover video with a composition asset, the uploader may be given the option to monetize the video directly through YouTube, their MCN or Stem. While inclusion in this program is at the discretion of content owners, if you do post a cover video with an eligible song, you may be able to share revenue with the publisher.
Read more about YouTube’s Copyright Policy here, and learn more about monetizing eligible cover videos on YouTube here.
Part IV: Takeaways
Understanding copyright is hard, and often times, independent artists aren’t equipped with a robust legal team to help them navigate the complicated world of rights management. Our best advice is to always secure your licenses, do your research and ask questions first.
Have questions about releasing a cover song, or copyright in general? Let us know in the comments below.