Recording, Releasing, and Performing Cover Songs

Cover songs have an interesting place in the musician lexicon. The term cover song originated in the early part of the recording era, when record labels’ distribution was often limited regionally. When a song grew in popularity in one region, competing labels in other regions would record and distribute the same song to cover their region. A similar practice occurs today, online with digital music stores like iTunes. Some popular bands refuse to sell their music on iTunes. When they release a new album, a cover version of the single will invariably appear on iTunes, often by a studio band.

Cover songs reveal much about artists, from their ability to simply sing or play their instruments to their own tastes in music. For independent musicians, cover songs are usually a way to make money, grow your fan base, and a means for creative expression.

Many of the musicians I know and work with play in wedding or dance bands. They are expected to know a long list of popular tunes, and play them exactly as they were originally recorded. These cover band gigs usually pay pretty well, and perform frequently. Steady, paying work is something every musician needs, and this is one way to get it.

Performing Cover Songs

For musicians that write and perform original music, cover songs are a chance to add some familiarity to their performances. In fact, one of the best ways out of obscurity is to add a handful of cover songs to your repertoire. While your fans may know the words to all your songs, people that are new to your music will appreciate hearing a familiar song. Furthermore, recording cover songs can help people find your music. This is especially true if you sell music online, as a search query could turn up your version of a popular song. More on this later.

Taking the notion of familiarity a step further, musicians can re-work a cover song to the point it’s hardly recognizable save the lyrics or melody. There are a handful of artists known for their cover versions of songs, usually because their versions are a stark contrast to the original. In this case, the song is often used as a grounds to measure creativity. For example, jazz artists usually know a great deal of standards, which are simply tunes many other jazz musicians have recorded or performed. Because a large part of jazz is improvisation, these standards are the familiar ground on which the creativity takes place.

When you perform cover songs, the writers and publishers are paid through performing right societies such as ASCAP, BMI, SOCAN, or PRS. One way these performing rights organizations (often referred to as PROs) collect royalties is by charging a fee to bars and live music venues. Next time you walk into a club, look for a PRO sticker on the door or front window. That means they are paying their dues so they can have a jukebox, DJ, or live bands that might play cover songs. There are two important things to keep in mind about PROs:

  1. They collect royalties for public performances, not for the sale of recorded music. That is considered private use.
  2. As a performer, you do not have to pay performance royalties. These are paid by the venue which hired you to perform. However, if you record your show and sell it as a live album, you will need to pay for the compulsory licenses, discussed later in this article.

Posting Cover Songs on YouTube

A great deal of musicians make videos of themselves performing cover songs at home and upload them to sites like YouTube. This is another great way to leverage people’s familiarity with the covered songs as a gateway to your original music. From my experience, videos of cover songs get many more views than videos of original music. Be sure to use the video description and tags wisely to help people find your cover song video and then link to your music elsewhere online.

You are allowed to post your cover songs on YouTube… sometimes.

Initially, YouTube ran into problems with copyright holders (mainly publishers) because legally speaking, these videos are a form of distribution that requires a synch license. This issue is gradually being cleared up, however. YouTube allows publishers to claim their copyrighted material and monetize the videos. In other words, a publisher might have the ability to make money from ads on your cover song video.

As of now there is no way of knowing which publishers have inked deals with YouTube and your videos can still run the risk of being pulled down. Proceed with caution, and for a more in depth read on this subject, check out “Music, Copyright, and YouTube” by Suzanne Lainson.

Recording Cover Songs

If performing cover songs is a great way to reach a few new fans, recording them is a great way to reach hundreds or thousands of new fans. Just as playing a cover song at your gig can attract the attention of new fans, putting a cover song on your album or EP might encourage people to check out more of your music.

One clever approach to deciding which cover songs to put on your album is to choose a somewhat obscure song by one of your major influences. While most people might not immediately recognize the song, die hard fans of the original artist will be more interested in hearing your version. After all, if they are fans of the music that inspired you, they’re much more likely to be fans of your original music. For more ideas on how to chose which cover songs to record, see “Cash For Covers” by Alex Holz.

How Do I Release Cover Songs Legally?

Sharing of an audio recording in any form, paid or unpaid, constitutes distribution. Distribution can be in the form of downloads, streaming from any website, including yours, or any physical product such as CD or vinyl. When you distribute a recording a song somebody else wrote, whether it’s for commercial use (making it for sale) or promotional use (giving it away for free), you are still required to obtain a compulsory license and pay royalties.

In order to share your cover song recordings, you must obtain a license.

Many independent artists are weary of putting cover songs on their album because of the hassle of obtaining a compulsory license. I was among this group of people until I figure out how to use an online licensing system such as RightsFlow’s Limelight service. I licensed four cover songs on one of my albums for both physical and digital distribution.

Through Limelight or Harry Fox, royalties are pre-paid. There is also a flat fee per song regardless of how many licenses you purchase. It takes a little guess work to estimate how many licenses to pay for up front, which will add to the initial cost of your release, but this is an extremely convenient way to obtain a compulsory license. If you want to record and release a cover song, I highly recommend using one of these services. If you have any questions, consult a music lawyer ahead of time.

If you want to avoid paying royalties altogether, you may be able to find popular songs in the public domain. Generally speaking, these are songs that were written before 1923. Most traditional spirituals and hymns fall into this category. To prove a song is in the public domain, you will need to be able to produce published sheet music that displays the copyright. With the vast number of resources online, this is pretty easy. One other warning here–original arrangements of public domain music can be copyrighted. Before you record a public domain song, make sure you’re not using a copyrighted arrangement.

The benefits of releasing cover songs outweigh the hassle of tracking sales and paying for royalties, especially with services like Limelight! streamlining the process for independent musicians. The cover songs I’ve released have generated more sales than my original music, either from individual downloads or by leading people to buy my full album as either a download or CD. I’m currently working on a covers album with a friend (and regardless of when you read this article, that statement is probably true). This is simply an easy way to create some steady income as a musician.

Make Cover Songs Work for You

I’ll leave you with one tip for releasing cover songs: Get your metadata right! The biggest advantage of releasing cover songs online is that people will find you in search results. Make sure you’ve optimized your key words, and it’s a good idea to experiment with a few searches and see what comes up on various sites. Understand how people search for songs (usually by the original artist, album, and title). Make sure you spell everything correctly.

Good luck!


Published by

Cameron Mizell

New York guitarist Cameron Mizell is involved in a wide variety of musical projects. He has released many of his own albums independently, including his latest, Tributary. Cameron's experiences as a musician and former record label employee give him a unique perspective on the musician industry, which he enjoys sharing on MusicianWages. Connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.

334 thoughts on “Recording, Releasing, and Performing Cover Songs”

  1. Hi Cameron,

    Assuming that I record a cd of cover songs and pay for the licensing, would I then be able to sell cd’s from the stage on a ship? I am a solo giutarist and I play to tracks. I also read in the licensing section that it is for doing business in the US. Do the licensing laws vary at sea? Also, do the cruise lines generally even allow you to sell a cd while performing on their ship?


    1. Im a harpist wanting to sell a CD of cover songs on ship as well and im struggling to find out, I work on Carnival so UK based, its so complicated and no one seems to know.

  2. Hi Dan –
    Cruise ships usually allow you to sell your CD through their gift shops. Sometimes they take a cut of it, sometimes they don’t – depends on the line. If you are a guest performer and play on the main stage you can usually sell and sign your CDs in the lobby afterwards.

    If you are playing one of the lounges you can often have your CD out in the lounge available for purchase – but I think this also varies by cruise line.

    Some guys make good money selling their CDs on ships. I met a guy on my last cruise that made an extra $600 a week selling his CD.

  3. Hi Dan,

    I can’t really answer your question about licensing laws out at sea. I do know that publishers will still want their royalties though, and it would be safe to assume that you need to pay those for whichever country in which you live and have the CDs delivered to you.

    I wonder what bands do that tour other countries and sell CDs on the road? There might be some similarities to your situation if their album includes any cover songs.

    Copyright laws and royalty percentages differ slightly by country, and for some songs, there may be different publishers representing various territories. This all depends on the deal signed by the artist, and not all deals are worldwide.

    It’s something I’d really like to see addressed on a global level, because anybody can sell anything to people all over the world online, even if they’re not physically traveling to different countries as you may be.

  4. There are some legal peculiarities on ships as well. I think while at sea you are expected to follow the laws of the country in which the ship makes it’s home port (it’s always written on the back of the ship). But I think you’re also expected to follow the laws of your own home country…but that seems awfully complicated…I guess I don’t know the answer either.

  5. Count me in among those who avoided recording cover tunes until he discovered the Harry Fox Songfile service. It’s awesome.

    Two things I’ve learned from licensing digital downloads through Songfile: first, download licenses are currently only good for one year, so be careful how you “time” your license purchases so they don’t expire before you’ve had the chance to sell the downloads. (I’m not sure why they have this stipulation — seems a bit silly, I hope this changes in the future.)

    Second, the HFA licenses I’ve purchased this year have a clause that restricts me to stores with servers that originate in the USA. That could affect your choice of stores to sell through. I’m not sure how to find out, for example, if iTunes UK vends its files from servers in the UK or US; the former is disallowed by the license terms.

    Agree it’s definitely worth the hassle :) I legally released two cover songs this year and plan to do an EP in 2009.

  6. Hi – thanks for the great post.

    My understanding is that a compulsory mechanical license will enable the new artist to record a previously released song, sell it on CD and make it available for purchase through digital download. All of this can be done without any prermission from the original label, publisher or artist.

    But what if I want to make a video of the covered song and post it on myspace, youtube, etc.? I don’t think that is covered by the compulsory mechanical. Do i need to obtain permission from original artist / publisher in order to post a video legally? Does anyone know what process this would entail


  7. Thanks for this great article, I was thinking about doing a covers project a while ago and this information has got me thinking about it again.

    I’ve been doing the maths and I think I see a problem with the iTunes model.

    iTunes pays the artist $0.10 per download, but the current statutory mechanical royalty rate is $.091 (9.1 cents) per song per unit.

    So an artist would make less than 1 cent per sale on a cover version sold through iTunes.

    So if you sold 1000 downloads you’d make $10.00.

    Than seems rather paltry or have I missed something?

  8. Actually, iTunes pays the distributor or label $0.70, and then the artist makes a cut of that. I use CD Baby, and they take a 9% cut, leaving me about $.63, so after paying my royalty it still makes it a decent profit percentage from the retail price. Other services like Tunecore just charge a yearly maintenance fee but then pay the entire $0.70 to the artist.

    One thing to add, thought. Harry Fox does charge a $15 service fee to license a song, so distribute that cost across the number of licenses you purchase up front as well. It definitely adds a hidden cost on top of the statutory rate per sale.

    1. Do you have any experience with CD Baby Pro? seems like a good deal…
      Also, I want to record my own lyrics over jazz instrumental tunes. Do you know what legal obligation is involved?
      Thank you so much!!!

      1. I don’t have any experience with CD Baby Pro, but it seems like it could be good for people that don’t want to figure that stuff out for themselves. It’s not hard to do, but it takes time, and some will feel it’s worth saving their time to pay somebody else to do the grunt work, especially if they know they’ll be earning serious money through ASCAP or BMI.

        Regarding the jazz tunes, are you using existing recordings or recording them with a band? If it’s the former, you’ll need to hire a lawyer that can clear the samples for you. If it’s the latter, chances are it would be treated as a cover song described in this article.

        1. it’s the latter. I will look into Harry Fox.

          Thank you for sharing all your knowledge! This is stuff is so confusing!


        2. careful, if you change (including adding, subtracting etc) lyrics or melody, you are no longer simply covering a song, unless these jazz songs are pub domain, you must negotiate directly with publishers

    1. Hi Mikel – that PDF is from MIT? I’m not sure where they got their info, but I get the $0.63 Cam mentioned. It’s really quite a good cut if you think about the cut musicians were getting on record deals prior to

  9. That PDF looks like it’s based on the rate iTunes was paying shortly after it’s inception, or around 2004. Not only has the rate changed as I noted before, but I also don’t understand the rest of the math.

    Look, if you’re doing things yourself, you’ll make a bigger cut. The more people you involve, the less you make, though perhaps you might sell more. That’s a call we should all be so lucky to make at some point in our careers.

  10. Hello. If found the article very helpful in understanding licensing, but I have a few questions:

    1) Using the harrfox licensing service, about how much would you say it would cost me to license about 8 songs that were (give or take) about 6 minutes long–all jazz?

    2) After I license a song, do I have to keep paying the artist? or is it that once I have paid, I now have the rights to record the song and I don’t have to worry about paying again?


  11. What is the process for performing the cover songs? Who (if any one) do we pay for those cover songs?

    Thanks for any help on this one?

  12. cameron,

    thanks for a great article series! very helpful stuff for aspiring musicians in a turbulent time.

    i have a question regarding cover songs: is it legal to record and digitally release a cover if you don’t charge anything (use a file-sharing service like rapidshare or limelinx)? since there is no profit at stake (much like the youtube videos) my hope would be ‘yes,’ but it’s really just a guess. can you shed any light?

  13. @Charles – You can calculate the rate at HFA, but I think it’s $0.091 up to 5 minutes and $0.0175 additional every minute after, rounded up (5:01 = $0.1085). And you have to continue paying royalties for as long as the song sells, and for every copy of the song that is sold.

    @dave – Even if you don’t charge anything and use the track as a promotion, you are still supposed to work something out with the publisher. When I worked at a record label, the label would often try to negotiate the rate with the publisher to save money. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. As an independent artist, it’s more difficult to have that kind of leverage, but at the same time it might be less of a concern for the publishers. Proceed at your own risk, but don’t try to play dumb. That kind of information is available online and you’ll have a hard time making your case.

    Again, I’m not a lawyer, everyone should make sure they understand this for themselves or hire a lawyer to help you before recording cover songs!

    1. that rate is per copy of the recording that you distribute, right? so if you make a record of 8 songs and you order 1,000 copies to sell or give away or whatever, you should pay HF something like $730 before you release the album.

  14. Hi Cameron,

    As the others have said, this is an excellent article. In particular, I’m interested in learning more about one part that you mention:

    “A great deal of musicians make videos of themselves playing cover songs at home and upload them to YouTube or other video sites. This initially created a problem for copyright holders and publishers, because legally speaking, you should get paid for a public performance of a song you wrote. The issue has more or less been cleared up by now …”

    Can you let us know how it’s been “cleared up,” and perhaps point us to some information documenting that?


  15. YouTube now allows copyright holders to make claims and have content removed:

    In some instances, such as major record labels or publishers, instead of pulling content they can choose to monetize it by adding advertising to the video page and collecting money from clicks or impressions (or however people make money from ads).

    If you make a video of yourself playing somebody elses song, chances are you have nothing to worry about. If that song starts getting millions of views, it might attract the attention of the person who wrote (or owns) the song and then they can decide whether or not to file a claim with YouTube.

    All in all it seems like a rather tedious process and at best, but it gives content owners that want to restrict use of their copyrighted material an option to do so.

    1. Hi Cameron,

      I recently posted a cover of a song I did and in less than a week I was being challenged for third party copyright infringement. I’m not interested in making money, only performing for fun….but I took the vid down anyway. I hardly had any views anyway…but I guess they have a right. I had no idea I was doing something improper, since there are thousands upon thousands of ‘covers’ of songs on Youtube….whatever. Very frustrated in NC.

  16. Thanks for all the good advice Cameron.

    I’m trying to figure out the most economical amount of digital downloads to acquire a mechanical license for. I actually called Harry Fox Agency yesterday. They told me that if I purchase a license for say, 50 downloads per song and then have to renew the license, I’ll be charged another $15 processing fee per song. That means I’d have to sell about 20 downloads per song (at .70 cents each) just to pay for the processing fee again. Since I have no idea if I’ll sell anything, that seems less good. Since I have to pay for the songs upfront and I don’t know how many songs I’ll sell it’s hard to decide how many downloads to pay for in advance.
    Do you have any advice?
    Is it too crazy to hope that there is a reliable site that lists the most downloaded cover songs so I’d have some place to start calculating?

    My CD has 10 cover songs on it but perhaps I wouldn’t get the digital license for all of them.


  17. Hi Cameron,

    Regarding cover tunes, I contacted the Harry Fox agency yesterday. They told me that if I purchase a license for say, 50 downloads per song and then have to renew the license, I’ll be charged another $15 processing fee per song. That means I’d have to sell about 20 downloads per song (at .70 cents each) just to pay for the processing fee again. Since I have no idea if I’ll sell anything, that seems less good.

    Any advice on how to determine the most economical amount of digital downloads to pay for in advance?
    Is it too crazy to think there might be a site out there that lists the most downloaded cover tunes so I could calculate which cover tunes on my CD I should get digital licensing for?

    thanks for your help.

  18. Deb,

    The cost per license is so small, I recommend overestimating. If you buy 50 licenses + the processing fee, you’re looking at about $20/song. If you do 200 licenses + the processing fee, the total cost is about $33/song. If you’re buying 50 at a time, you’ll spend $60 on fees alone to cover the 200 downloads. You’ll avoid wasting money if you overestimate.

    It’s impossible to know how many tracks you’ll sell. If you have no plans to promote your music and it’s just going to sit on iTunes, then you won’t sell much. But if your cover songs are well done, you have quality recordings, a fan base, and some sot of plan to make people aware of your music (there are tips all over this website), then you’d be surprised at how well cover songs can do online.

    Good luck!

  19. I need to know what or who do I contact to record another artist’s song. We are a Christian Band and would like to record a few cover songs to add to our next CD. But I don’t know who to contact to get this permission. We even rewrote a skynard song to Christian Lyrics. Can you get me headed in the right direction.

    Thank you
    Randy Bradley

  20. Dear Cameron,

    Really helpful article. I am in the UK and was just looking to find out what would need to be done if I did a blues album using some Robert Johnson tunes and some done for Muddy Waters and I noted that they are not yet in the public domain (I am doing my debut album on Scottish folk using mainly Burns so loads are already OK to use).

    So am I right in thinking I will need to go to the equivalent UK body to do what you did through HF? Seems they are not as handy as your lot- I don’t think I can work out how to get permission for Crossroads Blues, (I Just Want To) Make Love To You and such like. We don’t seem to HAVE a shopping cart. :( I am confused. Seems I have to work out which library to look at and I actually think the libaries are for production music, you know- finished pieces. Waaah!

    Since I am also writing my own stuff I will be registering with PRS anyway but I am not sure how to go about the cover song usage.

    Oh, by the way- I had my cover of How Come You Don’t Call Me pulled from YouTube back in 2007 together with Esmee’s and hers is back. Mine is still “rejected” and I still have a strike against my account. Seems it is not ALL “fixed” there! :(

    Kind regards frae Scotland,
    Brigid Mhairi

  21. Hello Cameron,

    If you are not selling a CD with cover songs but just giving them as gifts, do the songs still need to be liscenced?

    Mary Beth

  22. @Mary Beth – I can’t give advice on legal matters, and I don’t know when it’s safe to NOT pay royalties. When in doubt, you should pay them (and then you’re clear to sell the songs if you’d like). In my experience, any time a cover song is distributed, commercially or promotionally, royalties are supposed to be paid.

  23. how do we, want to ask permission from the original artist, or do we, can, record a cover song without permission? what possibly ‘happen’ to me if i record and produce a cover song and publish it online (either for free or sell)?

  24. Ok.. So I got my mechanical license from Harry Fox agency, recorded my cover nd I’m ready to release it to iTunes. My question is: How do I legally promote my song.. ?

    Can I submit it to a radio station for air play? (They pay BMI and ASCAP…)

    Will a radio station play my cover song since I have a mechanical license for it?

    Thank you.

  25. As you mentioned, radio stations pay for the performance, which happens to be the only fee for such usage. Publishers and writers aren’t due royalties for radio play (at least not in the US, I’m not sure about other countries). In my experience, commercial radio stations (in the pop/rock/alternative genres) don’t play cover songs very often. Of course, getting play on those station is tough anyway.

    I’ve written other articles on this site about things you can do to help your music sell, and when it comes to iTunes, a good cover version of a song often gets noticed on it’s own merits. I don’t think any of my cover songs have had radio play, but they’ve helped me earn a decent chunk of change. Hopefully you’ll have a similar experience.

    Good luck!

  26. Really interesting article. I have another question though. I have recorded a cover song and want to post it on my site as a FREE download. Am I allowed to do so without permission? It is not a straight forward cover – but instead I have reworked it slightly and added extra instrumentation, etc. So therefore, is it classed as a new recording?
    I’m not standing to make any monies or profit from it and have no intention of performing it live.

    Thanks in advance!

  27. As I mentioned in a previous comment, when in doubt, pay royalties. Any time a cover song is distributed, commercially or promotionally, royalties are supposed to be paid.

    Also, the copyright we’re talking about here has to do with the composition itself, not the arrangement or master recording (if these terms confuse you, just do an online search and you’ll learn the difference). If you record and distribute another person’s song, regardless of any variations you might make to the arrangement, you must still properly credit the songwriter(s) and pay royalties.

  28. I have never heard of Harry Fox’s songfile. I assumed that any covers that were on youtube were violating copyright law. Thanks for the information!

  29. Just so everyone knows the risks: I had placed a streaming only cover song on myspace and facebook. The copyright owner found it (search is his friend, I guess) and demanded a license. The specifics of the fee for a streaming download are written for commercial sites (Pandora, et al), not individuals on a social networking site, and are essentially impossible to decipher. But the statutory penalty for EACH violation is $350; don’t know if that includes streams or digital downloads, or CDs, because the language is murky.

    So the answer is, we came to a small mechanical license agreement for PRIOR streams and/or downloads, and I pulled the song down .

    So, they can find you, and they can demand payment. In this case, it was a lawyer representing the copyright owners estate; since he’s a lawyer, he can file a suit or demand and it would cost much more than what I paid him even to answer it.

    So: even for posting covers for streaming , free downloads, or CD given as gifts to your family (not immediate family: that’s excluded), get the license. That said, I don’t even know how to get a streaming “listen only” license: HFA doesn’t do it.

  30. This is a very informative article. I still have a couple of questions. I will be releasing an album with 4 original songs and 4 cover songs. I will be playing shows and distributing my music at the shows. I know that I will need to obtain a mechanical license because I’m pressing cd’s and a digital license because I will be putting the album on internet stores (I-Tunes etc..) but do I need to obtain some sort of license to be able to perform these covers live at venues? Thank you!

  31. I seem to have a problem finding out the copyright issues of a covers band playing covers live rather than recording them. I know this happens a lot and noone bats an eyelid, but I am seeking corporate sponsorship for the band and the company will be wary of the legal niceties. My band is lives in the uk.

  32. Dani – A band does not need to pay royalties of any kind to perform a cover song live. The original songwriters get paid for public performance (which might be a band covering their song, or their song being played by a DJ at a wedding) via Performing Rights Organizations like ASCAP, BMI, or in the UK, by PRS. Those organizations make their money by collecting fees from, among other things, venues that host live music performance. I’m not familiar enough with the exact process, but from my understanding of these things, a band does not have to pay royalties to perform a cover song live.

  33. Hi mate, can please tell me how and where can i get the licence to release a cover for the song “Cancion del mariachi” – Los Lobos, From the movie Desperado?
    Many thanks,

  34. Cameron-

    I’m a amateur pianist and have recently found myself addicted to uploading videos of myself playing or covering copyrighted material to youtube. I’ve found the entire quest is greatly improving my skills as a musician. I’m a bit paranoid about copyright infringement however. It seems as though the best solution to avoiding copyright infringement would be to obtain a mechanical license from harryfox but it seems like $15 per song is almost not worth it. Should I give up and discontinue my uploading or am I confused on the pricing of harryfox?

  35. To my knowledge, Harry Fox’s Songfile system can only license for audio recordings, not video. That’s known as a sync license. As far as I know, and this is by no means legal advice, you don’t need to worry about licenses if you’re just uploading your videos to YouTube.

  36. I’ve read the past posts and wondered if you knew anything about the ability to stream online with no option for download. I would assume that since nothing is transfered and no revenue is created by the website at all, that royalties would be void. Let me know if you have any info on this.


  37. Ryan, I don’t know enough about the current streaming laws to be much help. Here’s what I do know:

    There are different types of streaming out there, such as on demand or internet radio, and the rules vary. Also, if the site has advertisements, it’s creating at least a little revenue. In some instances that ad revenue is divided and paid out to the content owners based on a percentage of streams (but not necessarily in the form of royalties to the songwriter). In very specific instances, I don’t think any money is owed.

    I’ll try to get up to speed on this, though one reason it’s so unclear is that the law can’t keep up with the technology, so there may not be a black and white answer.

  38. Hello,
    I’m going to be doing a concert soon. I would like to do a few cover songs from other artists. I don’t plan to make a released cd of the music, but I do want to sell the dvd of the concert. Are there any particular licenses or anything that I would need.

  39. I am a drummer and I like to play along to songs and record them on tape. I can record them as long as I do not intend to sell them? Is that how the whole royalites thing works? I wish I could play at clubs but cannot find a band in Denver.. I like classic rock and some of todays music. Also how is it for us older guys to find bands ??

  40. Hey Cameron,

    I am a relatively unknown musician, trying to do more with my music. Have a fairly large following on YouTube (pazzmanmusic) .. But really want to record a CD with my own original music.

    I want to avoid any hassle of popular cover songs, but want to have some on there. Therefor I want to go the route of Royalty Free Music.. 2 songs I know I want to record are: Man of Constant Sorrow, and I Know You Rider… I am pretty sure they are both in the public domain…

    Do you know of any lists of popular traditional music that is free from copyright?

    Thanks for this blurby friend!!


  41. Hey Cameron,

    Great info! I have a quick question. I have a band that plays at a church and the church does pay the licensing fees for live performances (I believe through BMI) We want to record a live album that would have mostly originals but include some cover songs on the album. What other kind of licenses would I need to obtain for something like that?



  42. Is it legal to add lyrics to a cover song? There is a song I would like to record, but I want to add a verse that I have written to the end of it.

  43. @ Jordan – The church is paying performance royalties, which are collected by performing rights societies like BMI or ASCAP. When the music is recorded, you need the compulsory licenses as discussed in the article.

    @ Natasha – Sorry, I don’t know the answer to that one. You should try contacting the publisher or a music lawyer before you do that.

  44. Hello Cameron,

    Thank’s for the replies that you have offered to others. I have one question that would seem to be topic related concerning HFA and PRO’S. My question to you is as follows…
    I would like to obtain a “complusory mechanical license” from HFA to record only drum and bass guitar tracks to some songs that they hold the publishing rights to, burn them to a CD, and use for back-up accompaniment to enhance my sound as a solo performer in live performance situations such as small bars and resturants. I would not be sampling anything, as these parts would simply be recorded by myself on my own multi-track recorder to the best of my musical ability. Also, all of these songs would be ones that are in the ASCAP and BMI reprotoir. Do I personally need a “performane license” from Ascap AND BMI for myself as a musician in conjuction with the mechanical rights license from HFA, or is that already covered by the business venue if they already obtained the “performance license” from the PRO’S? Great website, very interesting! Thanks.

  45. Hi Cameron, do you need to obtain a license or permission if you want to perform someone else’s song on stage live but not to record or publish it?


  46. I obtained a liscence for digital as well as physical copies for a cover tune, how do I copyright my cd. this is the first cover tune i have recorded, my previous 2 cd’s I just took caare of it but since I have the liscense, can I just copyright the whole thing as usual

  47. Hi Cameron, Can you PLEASE clarify a couple things for me???

    Some of the songs I’ve written are inspired by existing melodies, but I’ve written completely new (Spiritual) lyrics…
    1)Is it necessary to get a mechanical license for music if i’ve written different lyrics and plan to record it?

    2) What if I wrote new lyrics to an existing melody, but it doesnt follow it exactly? Do I need to get “permission/mech lic”? For instance, the song may be similar to an existing song, by melody, but the lyrics and the overall harmony and sound will be unique…. is it still necessary to get “permissiom/mech lic”?

    I’ve only sung live and I’m new to the recording & I’m very grateful for your info you’ve posted!!!

  48. @ Tom – No.

    @ Carl – You can copyright the master recording as usual. Even though you didn’t write the cover songs, you still own your recordings of them.

    @ A.J. – You should discuss that with a music attorney. I don’t have any experience with that sort of thing. All I know is that without proper authorization, that sort of thing is considered plagiarism.

  49. Hi there. Thank you for the article. I am new to this whole music business, as it is my 13 year old who is the musician and I am learning with her as I go. My question is….I had set up a site for her on (she is already on you-tube). Given her age, she is only singing cover songs and is not yet writing her own material. It appears My-space deleted the account and I can’t get an answer from them as to why. Would her preformances posted on myspace be considered a copyright infringement? It doesn’t appear to be an issue with Youtube so I am confused.

    You seem to have a lot of knowledge in this arena, perhaps you can answer this question for me?

    Thank you.

  50. I play in a church band. The church is a registered non profit or not for profit organization. We video tape our Sunday services fo avalability on the church web site and edit out the music we play. This is done because our creative arts director is concerned about copywright infringement. I find it hard to believe that it would be infringement by having a band that is not paid for playing (we do this as a ministry and donate our efforts to the church) nor is the church “making money” (profit) by having us perform. If streamed from the church’s website for free our services including the music would we or would we not be infringing and in order to do this have to obtain licences to do so and or pay royalties for the song use? Thanks for your help and opinion.

  51. @ Debbie – I don’t really have enough knowledge of the MySpace user agreement to know why they deleted your daughter’s account. It could have been because of a specific song you posted, but it could have been for other reasons too. Sorry I can’t help more.

    @ Fred – Your reasoning sounds right to me, but there is a lot of grey area here. Based on what I understand, my opinion is that it would be an infringement to include the music on your church’s website in the context of the service.

  52. Great article! Glad to see something written about this subject that is clear and concise.

    From what I understand, the “Mechanical License” is what you would need to purchase in order to legally place your video cover on YouTube (HFA fee of $15 plus the $.091 per copy). With this formula, and taking into account that the artist that posted the video gets NO PROFIT from each time the video is watched on YT, how could ANYONE afford to actually post a video on YT legally if they have to constantly pay for something that they aren’t making any profit?

    I realize that you’ve stated that you could go ahead and post a cover on YT (“chances are you have nothing to worry about.”), but I’d like to attempt to be legit and legal about. :)

    Thanks in advance for your response….

    -Joshua Pickenpaugh

  53. Hi Cameron,

    I’m from the UK (Scotland), and am planning on releasing an album/EP to I’d like to do a cover song, do you know if I can go about it the American way? (ie. through LimeLight). Assuming the publisher/writer is American, and pay royalties.

    As is American, my CDs would be held in their warehouse, and digital versions would be on their servers, so would it be safe to assume that I’m covered? If the publisher and even artist of the original song are American, then the only thing that isn’t American is, well, me!

    I can’t afford legal advice, and us Brits don’t have it as easy as you do getting clearance. I’ve been online all night looking for a solution!

    Any insight you can give me would be much appreciated.
    Thanks so much!


  54. @ Aidan – You raise a great question here — the publisher/writer don’t need to be from America for them to be licensed/paid on sales/distribution in the US.

    If your CD is being manufactured/distributed/sold in the United States, you’ll need to secure a mechanical license for the US (regardless if the publisher/songwriter are from another country), as country of distribution and sale is the key in determining how publishing is paid out. Digital is the same.

    Limelight provides one way of handling ( as you can clear both physical and digital units in advance of release.

  55. Thanks Alex!

    It’s a really tricky issue, and it’s hard to find an answer, but what you say makes sense!

    To clarify, the album will be created and copied in the UK, but will be stored, sold and distributed from an American website on my behalf. I think it will be sold on many international iTunes stores (including the UK) as well, so would I need clearance for each individual country?

    I’m just being very cautious, as I obviously don’t want a lawsuit on my hands haha!

  56. Hey Cameron,

    Good article. However, I noticed that you said “Publishers and writers aren’t due royalties for radio play (at least not in the US, I’m not sure about other countries)”. I think that information is incorrect. If you write and original song and it is played on any BDS monitored station your PRO will collect royalties for that play and you are due it.

  57. Yeah I just wanted to say I don’t think that information is incorrect I know that information is incorrect as I get paid royalities all the time for radio albeit small I get em :)

  58. To jump in for Cameron here – perhaps he meant that artists themselves are not responsible for paying out the radio royalties?

    You’re absolutely right, that publishers and writers DO receive royalties for radio play. This is what ASCAP/BMI/SESAC are responsible for collecting. What most people don’t know is that the master side (recording) does NOT receive a royalty for terrestial radio play (i.e. AM/FM) while the composition (publishing) side does. There is pending legislation that may change this to compensate labels/recording artists for terrestial radio play.

  59. Yes, you are both correct. Pardon my mistake in that earlier comment. What I meant was that the person/company that owns the rights to the master aren’t due royalties, as Alex pointed out. Thanks to both for clarifying!

  60. Let me guess this straight. If I want to experiment with the melody or motif from another piece, arrange the bars differently and release it freely as an influenced creative work, I’ll have to pay whoever I was influenced from or deemed a criminal?

    That makes no sense to me. How can someone own combination of notes and demand payment whenever it is played again in the same order? They didn’t create the music, they just arranged it. Arranged according to the best applied music theory which again, no one owns. I would imagine you couldn’t patent music scales or a chord progressions the same way you couldn’t patent colours.

    Am I mistaken here, or have I just discovered a way of printing money by copyrighting the G-scale?

  61. @ Adrian – I think you’re mistaken, or just trying to make an argument against copyright in general. This article is simply here to help people feel more comfortable about incorporating others’ music into their repertoire.

  62. Different side of the question…

    As part of a gospel vocal group, we have made 50 albums and a dozen or so live or music video VHS/DVD over the past 40 years…also continue to do about 50 concerts a year.

    Majority of songs are cover tunes, for which we have paid for mechanical and sync license as appropriate to record and sell.

    We have the problem of ‘fans’ ripping videos from our DVDs, or sneaking a video camera into a concert…then posting to YouTube…or using a song from one of our CDs as background for video posted to YouTube.

    We would like to be able to issue take-down notices for many of these (particularly those that were encoded or videoed poorly), but are not quite sure what we ‘own’ to make the request.

    What do we ‘own’ about our own videos, public performances, etc, when we are not the copyright owners of the original songs?

    Any ideas?

  63. @ Dave – There are two different types of ownership here, and this is how I understand things based on what I’ve read about similar cases. You’ll have to try and find a more specific explanation in the YouTube user agreement.

    1) You own the videos from the DVDs. Those are effectively your recordings and you would have a position to issue a take down notice.

    2) You do not own videos made by people in the audience, however, you may own the copyright to the song in the video if you wrote the song. But as you said, it’s mostly cover songs, so the writers/publishers of those songs would have to issue the take down notice.

    In my opinion, this sort of thing will never go away and you’ll spend a lot more energy fighting it than it’s worth. In most cases, I bet the fans simply don’t understand what they can or cannot upload to YouTube. Creative content in the digital age is not valued like it used to be, and stuff gets copied all the time (it happens to my music, my articles, videos of my performances, etc… I get where you’re coming from).

    One thing you may consider is making YouTube videos yourself. Then you’d have quality control, and they’d be the definitive versions of your gospel choir’s performances. More importantly, you could control the messaging on the video and advertise your CDs, DVDs, concerts, etc.

    YouTube is a powerful promotional tool. Just something to consider. Good luck!

  64. @Cameron,

    Thanks for your thoughtful reply. After I posted last night, I got rather obsessed about tracking down more information and found the following:

    We CAN ask for takedown of unauthorized videos of our concerts…
    Even though we are not entitled to any royalties for ‘distribution’ of recordings of our live performance (though song writer/publisher is), the performance itself qualifies for copyright protection, as bootlegging is considered “Unauthorized fixation and trafficking in sound recordings and music videos”—-000-.html

    …but what scared me more about all this is the growing trend of disabling YouTube accounts of those that have uploaded their own covers of other’s songs. (We have some with over 300,000 views)

    Good info on this just posted a couple days ago: A talented acoustic guitarist has posted a number of recordings of himself playing popular songs…which include links to his website where he sells DVDs that show exactly how to play each song (he has paid for appropriate mechanical licensing for the DVDs).

  65. @ Dave, thanks for sharing your findings!

    I guess YouTube should be more forthcoming about what their users may legally upload to their site. They could say, “You may not use music in your video that you did not write or obtain permission to use.” Anybody can understand that. However, that would eliminate a good chunk of their users’ content, which would significantly hurt their traffic.

    Adam Rafferty’s post is a good read. I recommend everyone that’s come this far in the comments should check it out.

  66. I saw that same article about YouTube pulling covers and disabling accounts. One of the more interesting comments was about a band that just does interesting covers and how they obtained a mechanical license and completely ignored the sync license. Problem is neither would technically cover a Youtube upload anyway although if you managed to negotiate a sync license it would be doubtful that the party would then ask for a take down. Again the music industry is not prepared for the next wave of sites such as social media, they barely have gotten used to digital downloads. YouTube should just charge a flat fee to anybody that uploads a cover either by yearly subscription like Ascap or per song like a mechanical. Such a simple solution would never occur due unfortuatly. What’s funny is either way it would work because YouTube tracks every view of any video.

  67. Cameron,
    Great article!! Concerning Adrians comment on copyrighting the G-scale, isn’t the copyright for only the melody and lyrics and not the chord progression/arrangement (or whatever is the proper terminology; I’m a music novice actually)? Also, do professional recording artists or AR people pay for cover song arrangements (I’m pretty good at arranging but sound like a dying pig when I sing)? And if so, would I need to obtain any necessary agreements or would they take care of those things?


  68. I understand the complexities and grey area of Youtube hosting covers of copyrighted material. The issue lies in Youtube financially benefiting from the traffic generated by the videos of the covers, while the original creator receives no financial compensation. Youtube allows the posting of these videos, because they are working within the guidelines set forth by Grokster vs MGM and Sony vs. Universal which allows for technologies to exist if they are “capable of substantial noninfringing uses” as long as the technology doesn’t clearly foster infringement. That been said, Youtube sits pretty as long as they take down videos if requested by the original copyright owner.

    That brings us back to the question: What if you host your covers on your own website (absent of any type of advertising that would be generated by traffic) and only offer streams? What about Beck’s Record club: Since you can’t download these covers and only stream, I wonder if Beck is required to acquire any licenses.

  69. Apologies….I’m not sure why I keep on including this giving it away for free or “non-profit” argument. Not receiving any money doesn’t have anything to do with copyright infringement. It is however, an argument for fair use, which is another can of worms living in a grey area.

    So to amend my question above:

    Since you can’t download these covers and only stream, I wonder what licenses (or just permission) Beck would be required to have. As far as I know, Harry Fox does collect royalties from web steam


    and this might also apply (taken from Harry Fox website)

    Limited Downloads & Interactive Streaming
    Licenses for limited downloads and interactive streaming can be obtained through our bulk licensing process. If you are interested in obtaining such licenses, please contact Please note that in order to satisfy your obligations pursuant to licenses for the distribution of limited downloads and interactive streams, you must be able to report information such as service revenue, subscriber information, content costs, and applicable performance royalty expenses.

  70. Karl, the short answer to your question is, regardless of how the music is played, shared, streamed, sold, or downloaded, if you didn’t write the song then some form of royalty is due to the publisher and composer.

    The use of audio only is considered one type of license, and the use of audio synched to a video (be that a live performance or music video) is another type of license. And to the best of my knowledge, there is no statutory rate for audio or video streams like there is for permanent audio downloads. I don’t know how there could be when, even on subscription services that pay for use of master recordings, virtually no money can be made from streaming music. At least for individual artists. The major labels forced streaming services like like Rhaposdy (or even MySpace) to pay handsomely for access to their catalogs, so whether or not they make much money per stream is almost irrelevant. And I’m sure the major publishing companies were somehow involved in the deal as well.

    What this really boils down to is the law can’t keep up with the technology. And I believe the only way to get the law to catch up is for all of us to keep using the available technology in creative ways to gently pushing the limits en masse. I wouldn’t encourage blatant misuse or outright theft of others’ creative property, but until somebody can reasonably explain to me how a video of a girl singing a cover song in her bedroom is taking food off the copyright owners’ tables, I say keep using the technology available. Especially if it helps you sell cover songs that you’ve legally licensed.

  71. Hey man great article!

    I have recorded my own version of the hymn Amazing Grace which was publised in 1979. I’m pretty sure this is in the public domaine so this means I can sell digital downloads of my version on itunes without taking any further action, is this correct?


    Ashley :)

  72. Hi… Love the information on this page thank you!

    I have a question, I had some cover songs on my bands website so the people interested in seeing/booking our band can hear what we sound like. I was contacted (threatened) by ASCAP with “further action” if I don’t pay for the copyrighted songs. I have since removed the offending material (songs) and hope this will stop any further action. I am not in a hugely popular band maybe 50 shows a year we do not sell CD’s / DVDs at our shows.

    I take it that my band dose not have to pay money (royalty’s) to perform cover songs in the venues that hire us, it is the responsibility of the venue/purchaser to make sure they have the correct license. What is the name of the license they are to obtain?

    Can I have a list of the cover songs we perform live on my website?

    Thank you for your time.

  73. So If I was to cover a song, (any song) and wanted to put it up on myspace or something of that nature, purevolume, whatever, I would have to pay a royalty even though Im not trying to make money off it, or let people download it for free?

    Just to cover a song and let people LISTEN to it, I have to pay royalties? is that correct?

  74. hey brian im a funk musician from indonesia, and i read that can distribute my song to itunes. but im doin song remake a.k.a cover of old school funk. can i straight up submit/sell my music to itunes? does itunes automatically take care the price & license? thanks. i am really wanna know if theres a place where i can sell my covers without worrying about the copyright things. thank you. all the best.

  75. quote: “a band does not have to pay royalties to perform a cover song live.”

    How about if someone records this LIVE cover performance and put it on YouTube? Does that violate any copyright?


  76. cam,
    u are the freaking JC of indie artist! thank u on behalf of all of us everywhere.

    i am going to record an audio book of your bog, for myself to listen to on bike rides and for my kids to learn this stuff. do i need to get a lic?

    FYI – people please read this article and posts before u ask a ? thanks


  77. @ Eugene – Glad you’ve found all this info helpful. By all means, you can make an audio book for your own personal use, but we’d ask that you not distribute it without discussing with us first. Thanks for asking!

    @ Everyone else, please read through the comments, there’s a ton more info in the discussion not covered in the article itself.

  78. Just a comment that all these social sites should be paying ASCAP fees just like the bar where I play once a month. They pay royalties so I can perform cover songs which bring in patrons and make them money. YouTube is no different – they are a venue bringing my performances of cover songs to a public and generating revenue via advertising. They should be paying the fees, not the performer. Not how it is; but it’s how it should be.

  79. Hi Cameron,

    Great discussion and most helpful.

    I had a question about recording popular cover tunes.

    I am thinking of recording and releasing a digital download
    CD of Frank Sinatra-style cover songs.

    I am noticing that many of these highly popular songs have also
    been recorded by many other artists, some of the songs I am researching
    come up in I-tunes with over 100-200 versions, many of them by top name singers.

    My question is, how on earth would my cover version stand out over
    those recorded by the many top name singers that come up in the searches?

    It seems unlikely to me that many people would purchase a download sung by, say, Harry Smith over Ella, Sammy or Dean?

    Or are these songs so immensely popular that just the sheer volume of searches are going to result in decent enough sales to justify the time and expense of recording, licensing and marketing?

    Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

    thanks for a great column!

    Mark C.

  80. @ Mark – You bring up a good point. If you’re releasing a bunch of cover songs just to be found in search results, you have to compete with all the more popular versions of the song.

    I’ve noticed that as my cover songs sell better, the rise in the search results. Also, if the album title matches one of the song names, that particular song has more weight for that search. Of course, that only helps if your album is already selling or somebody searches for the song that happens to be the title of your album.

    The truth is, you’re now more or less in the same boat as everyone that releases original music, and there are no real shortcuts. First you have to focus on simply making a great album, and then focus on how to market it. Promote it at gigs, put links on your site and social networking profiles, make an iMix or two, etc. As the songs sell more over time, the search traffic will pick up and help your recordings continue to sell.

    Good luck!

  81. i’ve been thinking about recording a couple cover songs, but i’m not interested in making any money off of them or putting them on a release. i would just put them on like facebook or myspace, not to sell. would i still need to get permission? thanks,


  82. @Anthony,

    You would still need to get permission, which can be done via a direct mechanical license, or by issuing a compulsory license (one outlet that can handle is our service, Limelight, can assist).

    You CAN sometimes work out a gratis deal with a publisher to offer out a free download (especially if you have a pre-existing relationship with them). If not, you’ll need to pay the standard mechanical rate (9.1 cents per download up to 5 minutes) to the publisher.

  83. Hey Cameron,

    Quick question for you. I’m from Canada so my process will be different but I’m wondering about something in general. I’m creating a website that will have various local artists doing a cover version of one of their favorite songs. We’re just recording it in a basement and it’s going to be very bare-bones. I get that I need to get the digital license to have it available. But my understanding is I need that license for every territory in the world were it might be downloaded? What if I’m not going through iTunes or some big online music store and only offering it on my site? How would I ever track and restrict where the person is downloading the song from?


  84. @J,

    Good question – digital licensing is complex, but this is one area where it’s actually far simpler than what you’ve outlined.

    For your website:
    You’d need a license for the territory where the servers are based — it doesn’t have to be for where visitors download. Digital music stores like iTunes have sophisticated IP restrictions so users in certain countries can only shop in their country-specific iTunes, but what you’ve outlined wouldn’t require that much work. As long as you clear for Canada, you’re good.

    For distribution outside your site:
    In most territories OUTSIDE Canada and the United States, the digital music stores typically handle mechanical rights with the local society (i.e. iTunes UK => PRS for Music) and don’t require additional clearance from the artist/label. For the USA, you can use Limelight to clear the mechanical rights or contact the publisher directly to negotiate a license.

    Hope that helps!

  85. i had a four piece danceband which played in a club for twenty years… we recorded an album in 1968 of all our standard dance music of the 40’s…can i release it again on the net? what about royalties? thanks

    1. @June
      You have a bit of a problem. If it’s your sheet music then you own it and can license it. However, recordings made before February 15, 1972 cannot be copyrighted – even if you “digitally remaster” the audio – and if you were to file a copyright registration you’d have to commit fraud because the original recording was fixed prior to 2/15/72 and claim a later date. That a lot of record companies are doing the exact same thing doesn’t make it right.

  86. @June

    Do you control the rights to the original recording? If so, it shouldn’t be a problem to post it digitally. If not, you’d need to get permission from the record label (and likely your bandmates if there’s no agreement between you).

    Limelight would be able to clear the publishing (composition rights) on any cover songs if you did decide to do a digital release.

    Hope that helps!

  87. Just spent an hour reading all this useful information so I bought your latest album from your website. I encourage others who have found this the best info on the web to do the same!

    I direct a choir of little kids that did a cover song from a video game that has received 600,000 views on YouTube. I have some new covers planned for this year and want to release them in a way that can produce revenue for a choir that has a $200 budget. I want to make our covers available for digital download.

    I am a music teacher not a professional performer so this is all new to me. If I understand correctly, I need to:
    1. sign up with one of the seven distribution websites that were the subject of your original post.
    2. contact HFA for a mechanical license and try to guess how many downloads I might get.
    3. Pay in advance the $15/per song fee and the fee for my estimated lets say 400 downloads of each song.
    4. upload my music to the distribution site.
    5. upload my videos to YouTube and hope they put an ad on them rather than take them down
    6. stay up late watching our numbers climb through the roof :)

    Do I have to take care of paying the artists who we cover a percentage of profit and if so any advice of what I need to know.
    Any thing else I am missing?

  88. @ alex

    I see a choir pictured on your limelight site in the pics that play when you get there. I have been participating on a couple choral forums and blogging on the subject of copyrights. How rare is it that a public school choir uses your service?

  89. @Join

    We have many acappella groups, along with HS/college ensembles using Limelight. I saw your prior post and would be happy to walk you through the actual process (especially outlining a way to stretch your budget).

    One item to note – YouTube clearances are not covered under any service to date. That would likely require a synchronization license that must be secured directly with the publisher.

  90. I understand about obtaining licenses to distribute your cover recordings. My questions are; Once I record a cover song and release it to radio do I need to worry about any licenses? (I understand about it being a cover song and not receiving much airplay. However mine isn’t a huge mainstream song like some bob dylan tune and I figure I will be able to put in on the air.) So do I need to worry about any type of licenses to do this?

    My other question is I like the original music composition that goes with the cover song. Meaning I would like to keep the original music composition you hear in the background. Do I have the right to legally do that without paying for anything? Or is there steps I have to take in order to do that?

    To try and clear things up for you. This is my position. I found a cd released by one of my favorite songwriters. On the cd is a song I would really like to record and release to radio. I have the money and option to change the original music, but keep the melody acourse, However I really like the song how it is….so can I legally keep it like that? Thank you in advance and if you need me to clear it up better please respond to my email.

    1. @cody: The radio station already has a license for broadcasting your cover; that’s a performance license from ASCAP, BMI or SESAC. Typically you show the songwriter’s name on the recording and often which license agency. It’s their problem, not yours,

      You can perform the song any way you like but without a license from the phonorecord producer you cannot use any part of its sound. You can do a cover and use any skill or trick to sound as close to the original as you can make it, as long as you don’t actually use the original song.

  91. @ Cody – You are not responsible for paying any licenses for use on commercial radio, but radio is there for promotion, so why wouldn’t you be releasing the song as a single or an album as well?

    As long as you’re not sampling the original music (which requires a different kind of license), you can play the song exactly as you hear it on the original recording. In many ways, that’s exactly what a cover song is all about.

  92. @Cameron

    Thanks for your quick response. No I will be selling the single. I just didn’t want to try and confuse you anymore :). Can you go into further detail about using the original music or send me reference reading material? Because if I am able to record the original music than that could save me alot of money. (Also why change what sounds great.) Thanks Again.

  93. @ Cody – I’m not clear on what you mean by “original music,” but here are two answers:

    1) If you mean the original composition and arrangement, but you will be recording all the parts yourself, then you’re just doing a cover song, like we’re discussing in this article.

    2) If you are using the music from the original recording, basically taking the vocals out but using the backing track that’s already been recorded, then that is called sampling. You have to get special permission and license the music from the person or company that owns the master recording. This is separate from the compulsory license needed to record somebody else’s composition.

    If you’re talking about doing the second option, unfortunately I can’t help you. I don’t have any personal experience clearing samples.

  94. Hi Cameron.

    I just spent an awful lot of time reading your article and all of the comments but it is worth it! Because there is a lot of useful information. I just want to say thanks for your patience and replies. Keep it up.

    I got a few questions as well. The first two are paid performances.

    1) I plan to be a wedding singer, so it’s probably a good idea to contact the venue ahead of time to see if they have a performing rights org. getting royalties from covers songs that might be played there right?

    2) I also plan to perform dance performances such as michael jackson impersonations. Does the venue need to have PRO license if I’m just dancing to MJ music on the speakers?

    3) My last question concerns giving out free mixtapes of me rapping on hip hop beats. What I mean is that I would take hip hop beats from well known songs and create my own verses on it and put it on cd and give it out on the streets for free. Do I need a license even though I’m promoting myself with no cost to people?

    P.S. Hip Hop has always been heavily grounded on free mixtapes by artists. In fact, I can’t name a single famous rapper that hasn’t started out this way. I doubt they obtained licenses. Just thought I threw in my two cents.

    Your reply would be appreciated.

  95. I’m planning to make a bunch of CD’s just as stocking stuffers or hand outs to friends and family or whenever I play an open mic night. My question is is it still necessary to get licensing if you are not going to make money from the cover songs? I’ve just finished recording my version of Forever Young and am too paranoid about just emailing it to friends and such.

  96. Greetings to the forum. I have been writing lyrics for songs a nearly two years now. After extensive work in hte military taking much of my time, I have backed down considerably in trying to find a manager, preferrably a country artist to review the lyrics and see what they think. I’m very concerned of someone taking the lyrics and making them into a song with copyright and screwing me over. Seriously, I’m looking at artists like Brad Paisely, Alan Jackson, or Toby Keith. Some of the songs have humor, expressed feelings of a loved one, and that certain metaphoric story in life that many can relate to and I dearly want to get the show on the road but, need your advice and recommendations. Note that my addy is used as my name.


  97. I can shed a little light for Fred who asked about streaming songs preformed during a church service. The answer is that his church is paying only for performing and (typically) displaying lyrics during the service. You must obtain a separate license for each song and performance or sign up with a service that in essence provides a blanket license, handling the details for you. It does not matter if you are a non-profit or not. Unfortunately it is not unusual for churches to pay substantial penalties for copyright violation, because volunteers try to use common sense rather than research to determine their obligations.

    One such Service (and it may be the only one) is WorshipCast. This license/service is specifically designed for churches to perform and broadcast copyrighted music live and/or serve recordings of the live service on the church’s website. It does not cover broadcasting “canned music”. Our church has such a license and it costs about $1000 per year. More information is available at

    Webcast Director FBC Picayune.

  98. Hi.

    I haveve covered one of the Drifters fantastic songs,”Like sister and Brother” however,I’ve uploaded it onto You Tube and as of yet received no comments even tho it has been viewed 139 times.

    I would love some constructive criticism so I know what/where/how I need to improve,criticism of any kind is better than none at all.

    Can you please advise.

  99. I have been researching copyright issues on posting covers on Youtube, and fyi Limelight states that a syncronization license is required from the publisher of the song

  100. @Liam,

    Sunaj is correct – posting cover songs to YouTube requires a synchronization license from the music publisher (or express permission to record the cover as a music video). This rule doesn’t just apply to YouTube, it’s for all user-generated content sites (unless the site says they’ll clear the rights themselves).

  101. @Alex You may no longer need a synch license for some songs on YouTube. BMI for certain and I believe ASCAP has a licensing agreement with YouTube to allow copyrighted works from upload to enduser to be on YouTube. You would have to make sure who owns the copyright. ASCAP has apparantly tried to go after for profit groups that use the YouTube video on their own website but the guys at YouTube have told people contacted by ASCAP to refer ASCAP to YouTube. (obligatory statement- I am not a copyright lawyer) Check out our discussion on ChoralNet:

  102. Hey folks,

    I realize most of you are probably based in the states and more familiar with the licensing laws there. But I would think the laws should be similar in Canada. I’m simply trying to record some cover songs (and willing to pay for mechanical rights to do so) and have them available on my website. I’m being told by the Canadian Musical Reproduction Rights Agency that I can’t have the files on my site and have to go through an online music store. This totally defeats the purpose of my site and doesn’t really make sense to me. Here’s what I was told:

    “Presently, the only way to be licensed for an idea such as your own, would be to have your visitors (on your website) be rerouted to an online music service where they could sample and potentially purchase the track. In Canada, it is the Online store’s responsibility to obtain Online licenses for all tracks downloaded to Canadian residents. From your website, the user would click on the track and be rerouted to the online service of your choice. Should you decide to go this route, please ensure that you relay all the proper song writing information to the online music service when registering your musical works.

    If the downloads are occurring in other territories, you must contact those societies as international copyright laws may differ from country to country. For musical works downloaded in the US, please contact The Harry Fox Agency. ”

    Does this make sense to anyone? And I’m supposed to contact every country in which the download might occur? For the record, I asked about steaming the song and not having it available for download and was told I’m not allowed to stream even a second of it on my site. (Despite the fact as I said, I’m willing to pay for the mechanical license.)

    Thanks for any thoughts on this,

    1. > For the record, I asked about steaming the
      > song and not having it available for
      > download and was told I’m not allowed
      > to stream even a second of it on my
      > site. (Despite the fact as I said, I’m
      > willing to pay for the mechanical license.)

      If you can’t get one in Canada, have the streaming occur from a secondary site, like someplace in the U.S., then get a license for country the secondary site is located within. Since it’s never coming from Canada, you don’t need a license in Canada because your including a link doesn’t cause the audio to be routed through Canada.

  103. Hi,
    I was wondering how to properly do the paper work to have a cover song played on Pandora.

    Pandora says that for cover songs I should do the following “… you have received permission from the owner of the songs and/or recordings to allow us to webcast them, subject to our payment of customary public performance fees for the recordings and the songs.”

    I have mechanical rights through The Harry Fox Agency (HFA).

    Do I need something else? The song is with ASCAP. Is there some paper work that I should fill out with ASCAP?

  104. Hi there, we’re currently in the process of licensing our tribute tracks by INXS.

    By My Side is the 1st to go through Limelight. Will this license apply to the UK (itunes) etc or just in the USA ?

    look forward to any advice !


  105. Hi, first I want to thank the originator of this article and apologize ahead of time for being a bit off topic.

    I’ve been a closet singer so to speak all my life and I’m getting older without accomplishing my dreams. Any how without professional learning and without knowledge of writing music terms as in sheet music I happen to sing pretty well.

    Lately I mostly come up with gospel music, I seem to get the lyrics and tune in my head all at once. Well, to make a long story short I would like to sing my songs and sell them online.

    Do you have any advice for me as to how to do that from start to finish? I mean outside of talent, what are my first steps and what tools do I need and where or how to sell it online?

    thanks in advance for any input you can give me,

  106. Hello, I think several folks have asked this question but I couldn’t find a repsonse from anyone:

    With regards to paying royalties to ASCAP, it is mentioned that it is always the responsibility of the venue, but isn’t it ultimately the responsbility of the performer since aperforming on the street is a venue that does not answer to ASCAP, or if the venue does not have a lisence with ASCAP doesn’t ASCAP go after the performer to be fined. I believe this has actually happened in the past.

  107. @Albert – To my knowledge, the performers are never responsible for paying those fees to ASCAP. The fees are associated with having music in your venue, to be paid by the owner of the venue. If you were playing in a public space you owned, then yes, I imagine you would need to pay the proper ASCAP/BMI/etc. fees.

  108. @Ivonne – The best place to start would be to find a musician that will work with you, that can accompany you, put together the arrangements of the music for you (or co-write originals), and potentially help you get in the studio. Go out and listen to musicians in your area that play similar music to what you want to do, and just ask them if they’d like to get together!

  109. @Cameron – I am doing the Houston Bridal Show this weekend, And I asked them and this was there answer:

    Question: Does the Houston Bridal show have a license with ASCAP or BMI for the performance of copyrighted music by the string quartets who will be performing at the show?
    Al Cofrin

    Answer: no you must provide your own or play non trademarked music.

    Lee Capetillo, Jr
    Bridal Extravaganza Show
    On Mon, Jan 3, 2011 at 12:06 PM,

  110. I want to release a free download of two cover songs (which I made into a medley)just to kinda get my name out in my city. I do not own the rights to either of the songs and was wondering if I could do this legally.

    Thank you,
    Jurni Rayne

  111. Mr. Cameron,

    I am and experienced singer, musician and performer who has made steady , part -time income by playing in bands since 1983. Many of my gigs have been obtained in the ” Wedding / party / corporate/ bar-bat mitzvah ” market , which is in the dominant financial booking postion in my area , metropolitan Washington DC, and the surrounding suburbs . I have had some success in this area of work , particularly insofar as regular, steady, paid part time gigs, always singing and playing TOP-40/ current / variety band playlists.

    HERES the question : Local Agencies have begun a ” bottom up ” approach in the last 15 years : they actively scout out new, inexperienced talent ( singers and keyboardists in particular ), then ” train ” the new talent to perform as wedding singers/ performers. Many of these performers are brand new , and very inexpereinced , and consequently do not know much repetoir. The agencies ( or subordinate agencies ) then provide sequences, midi -files, recordings, videos to the novices so that they may learn hundreds of songs, as close to the famous/ well known versions as possible. They are then assembled into a ” band ” of other musicians that are given a midi -based system ( large polyphonic synth/ sample sound module like Roland JV2080 or such ) , and a click track head phone system to keep the drummer in rhythmic sync. The Wedding bands ( example ) are sent out to do a gig , and the ENTIRE NIGHT PERFROMANCE is controlled and governed by a MIDI system, which is playing the copyright protected songs EXACTLY as heard on record. The band and it’s various musicians could easily stop playing/ take a rest and just stand onstage , as the MIDI file plays its many musical parts through the sound system .An average band travels to their gigs with many hundred of these sequences and midi files, essentially a huge midi repetior library.

    1. HOW is this in accordance with ANY copyright or music performance rights? These various venues do NOT all pay royalties to ASCAP / BMI /SESAC. How do the performance rights societies stop this theft of song performances ?

    2. At an AVERAGE charge of $ 6,000.00 ( six thousand dollars ) up to $ 14,000.00 ( fourteen thousand dollars ) per night for a Wedding/ corporate / party band gig , the steadily – working band gross earning head toward millions of dollars . Multiplied times 20 – 30 bands, the gross revenue earned by the booking agencies is tremendous. How can all this occur soley on the performance of COVER songs, all of which are protected copyright / published songs ?

    3. I did NOT see ( in my 30 + years experience ) that ALL venues had any ” sticker ” whether ASCAP or BMI , on thier office door(s) . I would take an educated guess that LESS THAN HALF of the Washington DC area hotels, restaraunts , country clubs, botanical gardens, synagogues, ect . actuall pay a PENNY to a P.R.O. ( perfomance rights organization ). HOW does this differ from outright THEFT from the songwriter(s) and music publishers ?

    4. Among a current survey of three local ( Montgomery County Maryland ) talent agencies , many of the bands performed the SAME SEQUENCES . The arrangements were EXACTLY THE SAME , with the same keyboard , bass and drum arrangements coming out. The singers delivered the original lyric in the original key and vocal style , to create as close an approximation to the original recorded version as humanly possible. HOW CAN THIS perpetuate ? In many cases the original artist is no longer living , and yet their estate recieved not one penny from the continued performance of their songs.

    5. Lastly , the performers are paid according to thier ability to ” sound like” , or imitate the original recorded voice , of the original recorded artist. HOW CAN THIS be? the continued worship of deceased singing icons further stagnates an already pummelled music recording industry. These ” Wedding singers ” actually make many times the amount of money in their performance lifetimes than the original artists do / did !

    I know this is alot to digest, but I’d appreciate any further insights/ comment of thoughts form you and other readers.

    Sincerely ,
    Anthony C. Rigopoulos, Rockville Maryland 20853

  112. @ Anthony – I haven’t played in a cover/wedding band that uses a backing track, and I haven’t worked in any area of the industry that would deal with this kind of thing.

    It sounds to me like somebody must create those backing tracks and sell them to all these bands, and I’d assume the creator of the tracks has to pay for some type of license to whoever owns the rights to those songs.

    I could be wrong, and if so, maybe another reader can fill us in.

  113. I familar with licensing for the US market with Harry Fox Songfile systems and Limelight but my question is when I release a CD through Tunecore I released it worldwide. So my main question is do you have to license a cover song in the UK specially like you do in the US. In Canada you do have to license it like you do in the US and the process is basically the same. Everytime I research this information for the UK. It’s lead you back to the PRS or PPL websites but those are for licensing to play music in your business or website which is like ASCAP in the US. Most of the European countries just make the online stores pay the publishers from sales not the individual artists covering a song.

    I know it’s a million British artists that have covered the Beatles’s songs and sold their version of them. I know somebody knows if they had to license the track in order to sales their version where did they have to go to do it or they don’t have to license it at all.

  114. @Debonair,

    You’re correct in figuring most online music services handle outside the United States. Best bet is to check each agreement and ask your distributor to be sure. Physical product is more clear-cut — the manufacturer won’t press without you having confirmed the rights are cleared (or you provide a license).

  115. What’s the copyright situation with recording covers for a demo (to give to venues to get work) if you’re not selling it at all and only have a few copies?


    1. @Julia Smith: You need a license if you’re distributing a cover of a song unless it’s only to close friends who you know are not going to say anything to a performance rights society. Because if it gets to them they may come after you and the fees might be steep then because they can ask for minimum statutory damages of $750 plus attorney’s fees. The license fee is basically $15 plus 9c per copy against a minimum royalty schedule, e.g. 500 copies, so you’d have to pay $60.

  116. I’m sorry if i am repeating this question but I’m having a hard time finding the answer :D. I live in the UK (South Wales) and I would like to be able to sell some of my own recorded covers via Itunes, I have seen there are many great websites for retrieving licenses in the US but cant find any for the UK. Will it still be the same as the PDD licenses of the US?

    Thanks, your doing a great job helping everyone out, this is much appreciated

  117. Quick question: Do I still need a license to record a cover song even if I don’t plan to distribute it at all? I.E., I just want to hear myself sing it when I drive to work?

  118. @grant: No, you don’t need a mechanical license to make a cover for your own use because you’re not distributing the recording. It’s considered a private use and does not require a license. Besides, who would know about it to report you?

    This also applies if you’re making a cover to assist you in producing a performance, in that case the place where you’re performing would need a performance license but you don’t have to have a mechanical license for the copy of the cover you made because you’re not distributing it.

    The following is for everyone else who asked about making covers of their favorite songs then distributing them on CDs they want to give away or sell.

    Making any recording for distribution, either free or purchase, requires a mechanical license. My guess is you could probably get away without one if all you’re doing is giving a few copies to close friends. Again, who is going to report you?

    For distributing covers, basically it’s going to cost a minimum of $20 per song that you make a cover of, plus probably additional royalties (About 9c for the first 5 minutes and 2c a minute after that) depending on the number to be made, the only problem is that they usually want a minimum license (Harry Fox wants royalties on a minimum of 500 copies, which is about $40 per song.)

    Making a music video requires a synchronization license, that you have to negotiate with the music publishing company. Again, these are for covers; if you want to use part of someone else’s recording you’d need an additional license from the record company.

  119. I was just wondering, I have a couple songs I recorded at a small studio, if I do not intend to sell or distribute the songs, would I still need a license before our local non profit radio station could play it?

    1. @J white:How exactly is the station broadcasting your song? Are they playing a live recording? Or are you going to distribute – part company with – the recording? Once you let it out of your hands, that’s a distribution. And unless you can be certain you’re willing to risk being sued if the publisher finds out, you need a license.

  120. I lead worship at our church. We would like to record a cd with 8-10 songs to be distributed within our congregation. The songs will mainly be covers of other worship artists. We have a membership to CCLI. CCLI permits us to make LIVE recordings for distribution with the church upto 15% of the size of the congregation. We would like to record studio versions of these songs and maybe distribute more than the 15% alloted by CCLI.

    What is my best bet for compliance legally?

  121. Hey Brian:

    I’m Dave Crimmen, a 50’s Rock ‘n Roll/Rockabilly artist in the San Francisco area. I am also a B.M.I. writer and publisher and a recording artist so issues on YouTube about Copyright law concern me. I get a LOT of work locally doing cover tunes as such I have posted videos of my band performing songs by Presley, Buddy Holly etc. on You Tube to help get us work. Clients want to see my band as well as hear it and they want to see us doing covers not my originals.

    Now how do I go about getting clearances for these songs? What are the fees? I have no plans of releasing these performances on CD or DVD. There is no money generated here save for clients hiring me to play for their functions. I need to find out if it’s cost effective to get clearances or just take the videos down. I certainly want to cross my “Ts” and dot my “Is”. The Harry Fox agency no longer does this work.

    you can e-mail the answer to me at

    Thanx for your time

  122. @J — Yes – you would need a license (to reproduce the recording). You can secure one for a few units (25 is the minimum via our service).

    @Steve — If you have an idea in terms of the number of CDs produced or digital downloads you’d offer out, you can certainly clear the excess (or the entire project) via Limelight ( That would secure the mechanical license on your behalf for any of the recordings. If any of the songs are public domain, you wouldn’t need a license.

  123. Alex,

    I’ve done a cover of a recent top 40 song, and put it to video, and it has been picked up by the youtube technology as being a “Musical Composition” that belongs to EMI Publishing and Warner Chappell, I’ve recently heard that EMI is charging something near $2,500 per song per year to sync license, but there are millions of covers on youtube, some of which much more than a million views, and I just dont believe everyone is paying this $2,500 sync fee. Have you heard much about this? I want to be legal, I’ve paid my royalties for the audio only, my song is on iTunes, is 100% legit there, but you add video to it, and they can charge an amount that most artists just can’t afford. Is there anything you know you can do at this point?

    If you have ANY insight on this, I would be forever grateful, as I’m under a release deadline, and I don’t have time to look for a actual license from both of those huge publishers before the deadline, and after talking to I’ve heard that they can ask for just about any amount of money or just deny you the license… which is scary after the money I’ve already put into it…  I’m just not sure how all these other youtube artists do these covers do they actually pay for them?  

    thanks for your time, and I would really appreciate any sort of response at this point.

  124. Maybe I missed it but I think nobody asked about this.
    What’s the proper way to register a recording of a cover song to the Copyright office? I own the master of the recording and need to have it copyrighted before I release it.

    Thank you

    1. @Joan Pla: You do not register the copyright before you release the song; it’s a waste of money. You “publish” the song, which means that you “distribute phonorecords to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending, or offer to distribute phonorecords to a group of persons for purposes of further distribution, public performance, or public display”

      You’re probably best if the phonorecord has a notice, which is the letter P in a circle, the year of publication and the name of the copyright owner of the song. Usually the publisher owns this, so it’s going to be your name since you’re now the publisher. More artists should own the copyright to their records.

      You then have 90 days to register the copyright by sending two copies with the form and fee, which is $35 if you file online or $65 if mailed in. This gives you the maximum protection and does not require you to register it twice, once as an unpublished work then again as a published work.

      By registering within 90 days of first publication you can choose statutory damages or actual damages, plus attorney’s fees, for any unauthorized copying of your recording.

      1. Hi Paul, thank you for the information. It’s very helpful but I’m still confused. The original song is owned by Warner Chappell and George Michael, we did a fully new recording with my artist, so no samples are used. Now, since I own the master of the new recording, do I still have to put the P in the circle and my company’s name?


        1. @Joan Pla: I would recommend using the notice form, e.g. (P) 2011 Joan Pla Music LLC or whatever your company is for one simple reason, Copyright has two forms of copies: copies (anything except sound recordings) and phonorecords (anything used to produce sound.) If you get that it sounds silly that a tape recording on cassette, an MP3 on a jump drive, or a player piano roll is by law a “phonorecord” same as a 45 or CD, well, that’s how the law is.

          Now, the Berne Convention (which eliminates copyright notices) only applies to copies. Phonorecords are covered by the Phonolog Convention – a different treaty – which provides for the P-in-a-circle notice for phonorecords. So for protection under Phonolog I would recommend using the notice form because I don’t think the rules have been tested. You’d still have protection in the U.S. whether or not you have a notice, but internationally you might not. Also, with notice you eliminate most of the “Innocent Infringer” defense if someone makes copies of your recording and is distributing them, and thus the statutory minimum damages remain at $750 rather than being potentially dropped to $200. Besides that, it gives someone who might want to use it in something a way to make contact, maybe they pay to use your song or they hire you to do a song for them.

          1. Oh, I should mention two other things: Don’t use your own name for the company name, the purpose of using a corporate form (I’ll include LLCs as being corporate form even though they are somewhat different) is so that your assets are protected against lawsuit since the corporation is liable if you’re sued, and putting your own name on it is like painting a target that says you’re the one who’s responsible. (The company I happen to be the entire board of directors and only officer is “Viridian Development Corporation”. I also do not say it is “my company” for the same reason. People who deal with me are contracting with the company, not me, I’m just an employee.)

            Second is I say that you never run any business larger than a lemonade stand personally, always use an LLC or corporation. If the filing fees locally are very expensive you can always use one from another state where it’s cheaper, worst case you have to pay a fine and pay the local fees anyway. As it turned out, using the company I have which was chartered in Virginia and authorizing it in Maryland turned out to be less expensive than incorporating in Maryland, plus I get to keep the original 2006 establishment date as opposed to having a brand new company.

  125. Hello All,

    I plan on recording and releasing an album (mostly my original music, if not all original music based on the answer I receive) and am wondering if I release the album for free do I need to pay royalties?


  126. @theillphonetical: If it’s music you wrote, no, you do not pay royalties because you’re the copyright owner, that’s whether or not you charge for the CD. The reason is the copyright owner has the exclusive right to produce the work, and someone pays the copyright owner royalties in order to get permission to do so without having to beg for it for free. But, you don’t have to get permission from yourself!

    You will, however, have to file a notice with the Copyright office indicating you’ve made a recording so that other people are aware that they can use the compulsory license with respect to your song.

  127. I used to record mostly all covers but since my last cd of all originals, I don’t want to do anything but originals. Bot obviously covers still sell so may change my mind. really nothing like doing originals and being able to sell them effectively

  128. @steeltom: If your earnings are mostly from record sales then it doesn’t matter other than paying the fee for licensing each cover (as I pointed out to the other guy you don’t pay royalties on the songs you wrote because you don’t need a license from yourself, you can’t sue yourself!) If you might get radio airplay then doing your own songs might be good for some extra money from royalties. Plus if your songs are any good doing some originals might get you some money from gigs writing songs or song pieces for a TV show or a movie.

  129. Question,
    If I am recording a copy written song, but do not intend to sell the recording, or make income from it, do I need permission? I am looking at putting together a website so friends can hear my playing.
    Chris M.

    1. Chris,

      The intent to make income is inconsequential in US Copyright law… the primary issue is control of distribution.

      The copyright owner has the rights to control how their song is distributed (regardless of who records it).

      If your website for a small number of friends is not publicly available (requires some sort of login available only to a handful of people), you probably won’t have any problems… but if you leave it open to the world, you then fall into the category of public distribution and would be obligated to pay a streaming or downloadable license fee.


  130. Chris,
    If it’s for your own personal enjoyment, then no permission/licensing needed…
    You’re probably fine sharing with a few friends.
    BUT, if you put it onto a website (ANY publicly accessible website), then you have jumped into the arena of online distribution. If you’re expecting less than 2500 downloads (which sounds like what you want to do), you don’t need permission from the songwriter, but you do need to pay licensing fees.
    See the Harry Fox Songfile page for more info.

    1. Hi Chris,

      A mechanical license is needed for the reproduction and distribution in the U.S. for physical, digital download, or ringtone releases as well as for interactive streaming on a web site. Regardless of whether the track is sold, you’d still be responsible for paying royalties. More info is available on the Limelight FAQ page or via our video FAQs.

      Michael Kauffman
      the licensing and royalty service provider powering Limelight

  131. What kind of license would I need for a cover song being played live in a scene for an independent film. In other words, a scene that depicts a concert setting with a band on stage playing a covering a song released on CD/radio a few years ago… thx.


  132. Hi Dan,

    You’d need a synchronization license. The sync license would be needed regardless if it’s a cover or if you were using the original version of the tune, since it’s specific to the underlying composition. The master use license in this case (dealing with the recording) would be with the cover band’s label.

  133. I have also read that if you change the song enough to make an entirely new product, you don’t have to pay royalties. Is that true? and when is the song “changed enough”?

    1. Copyright applies to the lyrics and melody. No matter how far you take the arrangement, if you start with another song, you’re probably still covering it.

      The only time you don’t have to pay royalties to somebody else is if you’re writing an original song.

  134. I want to record my first music album. I use to sing well known songs using karaoke as my background music, then I think it would be a good thing to record my songs using karaoke. I do have a recording software which is Mixcraft 5 to record this songs.However, I don’t know a lot about recording and have a question: Am I required to have a record label and pay for licensing in order to record my music album before releasing and distributing? I will appreciate your answers, thanks!

    1. Daniel, you don’t need a record label (they sign artists that THEY want to promote and distribute).

      You just need to arrange to pay licensing fees for the songs that you plan to release.

      You didn’t say what country your are from… the laws vary. In the U.S. you could contact RightsFlow or Harry Fox.

      CDBaby makes it pretty easy to handle the distribution (if you want to show up in iTunes, Amazon music, etc.)

      This page from CDBaby gives a pretty detailed step-by-step for those living in the US:

      Licensing of Cover Tunes Info

  135. What form of license is needed if a church service is streamed live online, and includes live ‘performance’ of cover tunes?

    ..and is a different one required if the service is archived online and available for viewing later?

    1. …oh.. and also, what if the live stream is open to the world? (We’ve had a number of people tuning in from South Africa, Australia, various countries in Europe..)

      1. Dave,
        This is a link to the licensing service we use for our live church services that explains it pretty well. The bad news: It costs. The good news: Pay the fee and there are no reporting requirements if your church has less than 5000 members.
        As far as archives go, the license covers that also, but you can only have them available from your site, not a public 3rd party site like youtube.
        Disclaimer: Not a lawyer or expert, just have some experience.

        1. Bud,
          Thanks… that’s a great resource!
          I think it’s a reasonable fee… and we can probably recoup it with a ‘donation’ button on the streaming page.

  136. Hello!
    New to the forum. I am looking to perform at small venues around my town (wine bars, restaurants etc.). All songs will be done simply and acoustically with one single guitar. All songs will be covers of the originals. Do I need to obtain rights or licensing to do this?? Please advise :) thanks!

    1. Welcome to the site! Check out the section in the article above about performing cover songs, especially the last point, and I think you’ll learn everything you need to know.

  137. The problem with putting cover tunes on youtube is that there’s no guarantee that you ain’t gonna get a strike on your account if the rights holder is not part of that shared ad revenue system. After a few of those, your account is gone/deleted/over. So i’d be careful putting covers on youtube.

  138. Now that I know that I have to pay for the licensing of the songs I want to release, I have another question. Well, I understand that I don’t need a recording label to do that, however I want to know what will my status in terms of recording songs legally be? will I be considered an Independent recording artist? If yes, do I have to acquire a certain type of authorization to start recording my cover songs at home? If yes where do I need to go?

  139. Well, I’ve been reading about the article Musician’s Guide to the Self-Released Album, which is actually fantastic for all musicians, and I thank you for sharing it with us. Anyway, I still need some help if it’s possible. Now my question is about being an independent recording artist: Am I required by law to be registered as an independent recording artist? Am I required to register my home recording studio? Where do I need to go?

  140. Thanks for putting up this guide to a conusing arena! The trio I play with has just recorded, mixed, and mastered a 7 song “demo”, something to give to venues that might book us, something to give to family/friends, and perhaps sell. It is all covers from Little Feat, Gershwin, Joni Mitchell, Delmore Brothers, and the Doobie Brothers, to two songs I consider “traditional”, a folk tune called Dark Hollow, and the bluegrass jam Irish classic Red-Haired Boy.

    Obviously, a web presence will give our little local trio a lot more credibilty and reach. I started using Limelight to research cover clearance, through DiscMakers, and saw a dramatic increase in the cost of the license when I went from 50 (CD) units to 300 and added like two hundred streaming internet units.

    Assuming we have accepted already, begrudgingly, that this process is necessary, how do people really control the number of licenses for online streaming using the music players associated with Facebook, Reverb Nation, My Space etc? If we’re trying to remain aboveboard, are we really supposed to monitor how many times someone clicks on a song and gives it a minute’s listen, and then compare this to the number of licenses we purchased? And then buy more? We will reach 2500 clicks in the year 2500.

    Eric Belsey

  141. Hi!

    I am a UK-based solo acoustic guitarist who arranges popular songs of all manner and genre into acoustic renditions. I currently play live in venues, but have never put anything down onto CD.

    I’m planning to put together (and have already recorded) 11 Motown covers from various artists and am keen to release it (i.e. make copies and give them to anyone who wants one) for charity…..I don’t expect many takers but was wondering where I stand as far as royalties and such goes (do you have to make a certain number of items before a license is required etc?). Is this something that would require a licence and all the rest of this?

    Any help appreciated!

  142. Hi,

    I am new to the forum. This is a great article and clears up a lot of the confusion I have about this area.

    One thing I am still a little confused about is posting short demos of me singing or playing part of a song on YouTube or wherever. For instance is it possible for me to post a short (<30 seconds) clip of me singing or playing a song to showcase my talent and avoid any legal complications (and do it for free)?

    So the whole video would be no more than 30 seconds and isolate only one part (i.e. only have vocals of that part of the song but not guitar or vice versa).

    Any help greatly appreciated.


  143. I don’t care what that law says, it’s wrong. The very idea that you could claim rights to a song to the extent that you are the only one ever to be allowed to play or sing it is stupid. If this is the case then no song is original because every combination of the 12 tones possible have already been played and therefore you have the right to play NOTHING.

    Who was stupid enough to make such a ridiculous law? I can’t believe out of all the comments here no one is even questioning such a law. All they want to know is how not to break it, well if you cannot play a and record with your own instrument a “copyrighted” song because of it, then that means you can not play anything and you better think long and hard about that.

    You should be as outraged about it as I am because copyrights were intended to protect a recording, not an idea. They were intended to protect 1 person or band’s performance of a song, not impede on the rights of all others to ever perform it. The idea was so that no one could take the original recording and make money from it, however if it is not the original recording then it is not and should not be covered.

    With this logic I could copyright the alphabet and be able to stop all written language from ever being published. Is this really the road we want to go down?
    The very idea that I have to ask or pay for a license before I play a song on my own guitar infuriates me to no end.
    This law has just got to go.

    1. I don’t believe the law restricts anyone from playing a cover, for your own enjoyment.
      If you make a recording for commercial use and make money that is another matter, beside such a law could never be enforced anyway

    2. I hear ya man, and agree completely. Except for, in my opinion, there needs to be some way to get musicians paid for what they write, beyond just that single recording. Does the current system go too far with this simple and fair idea? Limelight wanting to charge me $20 to license a Delmore Brothers song that was recorded in the 30’s? When they’re both long since dead?

      Yes, it obviously goes too far, but here’s a news flash, which may be why folks on this board seem to you to be meekly aquiescing to this reality: the courts are run by lawyers, who have long since figured out how to use the law to milk the people who actually create something of value. (BTW, the entire country is a scam, a Ponzi scheme, but that’s just a longer variation on this same theme. You’ll get all the justice you can afford to purchase.)

      Lots of my friends have just recorded cover songs and not given it a second thought, because that recording was very unlikely to make it into the hands of someone who gave a shit. Well, we want to leverage the internet, and there is not a doubt in my mind that there are some slimy rooms full of laptops and lawyers and paralegals somewhere doing nothing but searching for these cover versions and suing musicians for every dime they can get. It is a form of extortion, an organized crime against art for sure, but go to war with them at your peril, brother. Choose your battles carefully.

    3. I’m not so sure you understand the law, and perhaps that’s why you’re the only person outraged.

      There’s no law preventing anyone from playing anybody else’s songs. You can do that all you want for free and without penalty.

      If you record somebody else’s songs, all you have to do is pay them a few pennies for every copy distributed. That’s explained in the article.

      Copyright only protects lyrics and melody that are in tangible form–either written down or recorded–never just the idea.

      If you’re still confused or disagree, maybe this information from the US Copyright Office will help.

      1. I agree – copyright law helps and protects artists and other content creators. Certainly there are issues within the law that need to be addressed – but the general outrage you’re describing is unwarranted.

        If you were to put one of my songs on one of your albums and then sell it – I should be paid a small fee. Otherwise, write your own songs!

    4. lol…12 tones in Western music…in India they have like 96 tones…lol
      but wait…You mean to say…that my 3 chord
      C to G to F song ISN’T ORIGINAL????
      Hey man…I’m an artist…EVERYTHING I WRITE has NEVER been heard before…lol

  144. Hi!
    I have a small professional string group and we are interested in including some popular/current selections to our repertoire. We typically perform with our group at weddings and on a fairly regular basis. I am interested in including about 10-15 pop tunes. Most venues are churches, museum, outdoors….usually an audience of 100 or less.
    Any info you could provide would be really helpful!

  145. Advice from Limelight regarding when to buy additional licences after the initial upfront (minimum 25) has been obtained:

    This is a common question – as long as you report the additional sales within a reasonable time frame after you are made aware of them (ie 1 month), you’re typically fine. You can always renew your license via Limelight at any point after the initial purchase.

    This means you can buy 25 upfront, then wait until CD Baby (or whatever you use for digital distribution)reports sales beyond that 25 before paying for them.

    Compare that to the situation HFA had where you had to buy a minimum of 2500 licences upfront, and they expired if unsold after a year. Completely out of touch with the realities of digital downloads. Add to that that US law could ban you permanently from purchasing more licences if you didn’t buy them upfront.

    HFA now have a separate setup for sub-2500 (why separate?), but Limelight’s is still the most pragmatic.

  146. I have a cover band and we perform at various public and private venues. Some of the larger venues have recently required that we sign a waiver, releasing the venue from any liability and stipulating that we (the performers) have to pay licensing fees for the covers.

    In addition, we plan on playing several “Concerts in the Park” events in town next year. I’m not certain that the City that sponsors such events pays a licensing fee.

    In reading ASCAPs performance requirements “The law says all who participate in, or are responsible for, performances of music are legally responsible. Since it is the business owner who obtains the ultimate benefit from the performance, it is the business owner who obtains the license;” It seems as though we all share some level of liability.

    Is there any exposure to the artists in these circumstances?

    1. Unless there’s something in your contract with a venue that states the performer is to pay performance royalties out of their earnings, I don’t fully understand how they can pass the buck so easily. That seems evasive (and a little sleazy) on the part of the venue.

      Somebody else out there probably knows better than me when it comes to performance royalties, so please chime in, but it has always been my understanding that it is not the performer’s responsibility to pay those royalties. At most, you might have to send a program to the PROs to report the songs you play.

      1. Promoters being sleazy??? Say it isn’t true…lol
        Bands/performers should always realize…MOST venue promoters (especially clubs) are the sleaziest penny pinching, pass the buck, lie about how much money they made off of your show, bonus stealing individuals the earth has ever known…that’s why you get a big psychopath manager to handle them and get your money.
        They will lie and make it sound official because they know most bands will not have a clue what the actual laws are and pay or have the lying promoter “deduct” fees from your pay.
        Another reason why we are grateful for pages like this that help us learn..thank you!!

  147. What about a cover that has been taken from a karaoke disc and has been done for a charity. Do we need a licence / permission for that? ? ?

  148. Do you have to pay a fee if you are going to dance to the songs as opposed to singing the songs, like on So You Think You Can Dance?

  149. Hi,

    Some internet distributors say that, in order to distribute cover songs through their services, I need those songs to be “cleared,” I need to obtain a license from the copyright owners. One of them says, quote: “Copyright Law requires artists and labels to obtain a mechanical license before distributing a recording containing any song/composition they didn’t write.”

    So I did my research but couldn’t find such a requirement in the US Copyright Act. What I have found instead, in the Section 115, is something called “compulsory license.” ( According to that, informing the copyright owners of my intention to cover their song, that will entitle me to perform, record, and distribute that song. They won’t even have to respond or to “license” anything to me, so I take it that their agreement on licensing will be considered implicit, forced, compulsory, hence the name.

    So, if I understand correctly, I don’t have to “obtain” (hold in my hands) any license or proof of license in order to distribute cover songs. Is that correct? And if it is, then why do those distributors make that claim about the Copyright Law? What am I missing here?

    Any input will be greatly appreciated!

    1. A compulsory license is a type of mechanical license, so basically the same idea.

      The reason some distributors require to see some proof (typically an email confirmation or PDF of the license) is to protect themselves. A distributor could be held liable if a copyright owner proves that they knowingly distributed unlicensed copyrighted material.

      Technically, law doesn’t require you to show your distributor proof of clearance, but neither does it require them to distribute your recording.

      1. “Technically, law doesn’t require you to show your distributor proof of clearance, but neither does it require them to distribute your recording.”

        Thanks Cameron! The issue that I was rising is this: upon receiving my Notice of Intention for Compulsory License, the copyright owner is not required to even acknowledge that they have received it, never mind issuing and sending me a license. So, there’s no confirmation, no license, and no proof of license, because, according to Section 115 of the US Copyright Act, no confirmation, no license, and no proof of license is required. My Notice of Intention for Compulsory License is ‘technically’ the license. And it is in the hands of the copyright owner. So, should they need it, the distributors should ask THEM for such proof, not me.

        Another issue is why does that distributor say that “Copyright Law requires artists and labels to obtain a mechanical license before distributing a recording containing any song/composition they didn’t write”?? To my best knowledge, that statement is false. In fact, the Copyright Law does NOT require artists and labels to “obtain” anything before distributing a recording containing any song/composition they didn’t write. It only requires them to send the copyright owners the mentioned Letter of Intention, and then to pay the due royalties in due time. That’s all the Copyright Law requires from the artist. Right?

        Randy, I am perfectly aware that the compulsory license doesn’t exempt me of any of my legal obligations. Unless and until I’m proved guilty I am innocent and law abiding, right?

        1. I hear what you’re saying now, and you’re right, nobody ever sends you an actual license. The word “obtain”

          Most people nowadays are using HFA or Limelight to pay their royalties up front, and those services provide you with a “license” that, honestly, is more like a receipt than a legal document.

          A copy of your letter of intent should be as sufficient as anything you receive from a third party licensing service as long as your letter meets all the lawful requirements.

          Long story short, you’re right, but my word isn’t the same as the distributor’s. Ask them if your letter of intent and certified letter receipt from the USPS (for proof of date sent) will suffice, and if they say no, present them with the information you’ve written here.

          On a side note, I’ve sent letters of intent before, and there’s a lot of paperwork involved when you do it on your own. Make sure you’re organized from the start so you can track your sales, royalties due, send quarterly royalty statements to the publisher, audits, etc.

          Good luck!

    2. The compulsory license statute does not exempt you from the requirement to license and pay royalties for using the cover tunes.

      It simply makes it easier for artists to record and distribute cover tunes without having to track down and negotiate a licensing fee for every cover they want to use.

      There IS a fee…but for most works (registered with ASCAP, BMI, etc.) it’s a standardized fee based on medium (CD, digital download, etc.), length of work (minutes)…etc.

      For example, the current statutory rate for a ‘fixed’ recording (CD) or permanent digital download is 9.1 cents per song, or 1.75 cents per minute of song, whichever is greater.

      Other rates apply for on-demand streaming.

  150. hey all,great article and responses, now I have an interesting situation, I would like to broadcast a canadian festival on US based internet radio (the station only plays independent music).
    ok hers the details, id like to broadcast live from the fest but not all the bands play all original music,some play some covers and some may be tribute artists (ie: ozzy cover band), I am not out to make $$ off this broadcast just provide promo etc and great music for the internet radio station, so whats legal…whats not, what do i need or is this just gonna be an total uphill battle to pull off?

  151. Hi there,
    I’ve been using Limelight to by licenses for the cover songs I’m selling online but realised recently that it only applies to songs that have been bought in the US. So, If I sold 100 in the US I would buy 100.

    I have, however, been distrubuting my cover songs all over the world. Selling, 1 in holland, 10 in italy, 3 in china… etc. So do I have to be a license for EVERY single country? How can I even guess how many I’ll sell to when the majority or small and single sales?
    I think if I did this I would definitely make zero profit on my cover songs and the idea of buying a license from every different country seems absurd to me.

    I’ve done lots of research and can’t find any conclusive information about this.

    Please help me!

    P.S I’m based in the UK and I know that iTunes distributes the royalties so for the UK I’m covered!

    1. Hi!

      First off, thanks for using Limelight. This is a common question and here’s the answer (via the LL FAQ –

      “While Limelight is available for users from all over the world the licenses covers the US market only.

      However, most online music services typically handle this right outside the United States. You should always check your user agreement (or ask your digital distributor) before distribution to make sure you are covered. For physical distributions, an artist or label is required to contact the territory’s copyright or mechanical rights society for a license, such as GEMA in Germany or PRS for Music in the UK.”

      To note, the only country I’m aware of today that requires “direct” clearance outside the USA is Mexico (and it always sounded like that will move to a centralized PRO structure if it hasn’t already).

      Hope that helps!

      1. I’ve been searching the net for an answer to this question for two days and this is the first thing I have found anywhere that explains the situation. Alex, if you could write a whole post somewhere about this subject of licensing procedures for selling covers outside the USA and what is required for different territories, I think it would help so many people who would like to do covers but can’t find the answers. Great site, keep it up!

  152. I’m starting to record a covers album, so I found this post tremendously helpful. I may have questions later, but for now…just a big THANKS to Cameron for his article and answers. By the way Cameron, I went to your site and listen to your music… very very nice !! 10+

  153. I think my questions is simple, but clarification is something I need before proceeding. I am a singer in a band and they have asked me to take over handling of the band’s website. I currently post photos and gig information, but would like to include short clips of the band performing various songs. We don’t record discs to sell, but often we have potential clients ask to hear our sound before deciding if they want to hire us. Is it legal to put a personal recording of the band’s performance on the webpage? Is there a time limit? Would we have to pay to do this?
    I thank you in advance for your advice.

  154. Seriously… U can sell ur covers w out all this bs if ur not on a national level. All my pals do it for yeears and make thousands not one complaint or licence. FYI oh and dont download music for either get real

    1. National level, local level, that makes no difference in terms of ethics. If you’re making money off of other people’s music, me thinks it would be only fair to pay them the 9 cents per song sold. You owe them those pennies, don’t you think?

  155. So I’m planning a Christmas performance and was wanting to record and distribute some versions of Christmas Carols I put together. I picked them up by ear so there’s no sheet music to check copywrites or anything. Am I allowed to record and distribute these for free or sell them without acquiring licensing?

      1. Okay, and if they’re not public domain then I have to license each song that’s not PD? Or each COPY I distribute of each song? How much is the average cost to license a Christmas carol?

        1. It’s really simple. If the songs are not PD, then find the copyright holders and send them a letter in which you let them know that you intend to make (say) 1,000 copies of your own recordings of their song, along with a $91.00 check as royalties (the statutory rate of the royalties for covering a song is $0.091 per manufactured copy). After 1,000 downloads (or other sells of your recording), you send them another check for the next (say) 1,000 copies, and so on. This way you’re covered, you’re legal, and you’re a good person.

          Now, I know these days you don’t manufacture physical copies of the recordings, but you must act *as if* you do manufacture them. That’s because you must pay those royalties BEFORE you actually start selling your recordings.

          I’m doing the same thing, so see you on iTunes i guess.

          Best luck!

  156. This is some good info. Here is my question. I am putting together a project where I will need multiple cover tracks each month for fitness instructors. I will be adding voice overlays and video, both sync’d to the music and sell irt commercially. I am having a problem finding companies selling the license rights to do this.

    Please let me know if you have any sites I can go to that will give me the licensing rights I need for cover music. Thanks.


  157. I have an assignment for university where i need to make a short film and it can be pretty much anything i like and so as I’m in a band we shall make a music video. But my problem is that I’m not sure if I can legally just cover a song.
    Reason 1 being the song recorded would be copyrighted, and so im under risk of being sued for breaching copyright.
    Reason 2 basically for the same reason the first one, breaching copyight would also be plagiarism and thus I would fail the assignment (or worse).
    I have tried searching the Internet to try and get some advice, but can’t really find anything to say that I can or cannot record a cover of a song.
    Also the video is not planning to be released to anything other than be submitted for the assignment.

    1. Disclaimer: Not a lawyer, but I read a lot. Also I had a son in film school, so I know a bit about what you are going through. There is an “educational” exemption for using copyrighted works. You should be OK if you don’t distribute the film. On the other hand, your instructor might consider it a test, or the school may have specific policies that would get you into trouble. It takes a little effort, but to be an the safe side and to avoid even the hint of infringement, my son would contact the copyright holder, tell them what he was doing, and usually get permission first. I think he was turned down only once, and the original artist was apologetic, but his publisher or label or someone he had signed with would not give permission. He just moved on to his second choice in that case that gave him enthusiastic permission. Also be aware there are industry standards for giving proper credit, to artists in the titles and credits section. Don’t under any circumstances leave those out. Although one purpose of film school is to get the bad films and mistakes out of the way before you become a professional, they do become part of your proverbial permanent and now largely public record.

      One other thing, some of my son’s student films won awards and were distributed, one in particular worldwide. It was good that he was already cleared on the music, so that was not a show stopper. So why not go ahead and start acting like a professional now, you never know how soon your break may come.

  158. I’ve been stressing about something lately. I’m quite curious regarding cover songs. I have this high-minded prospect of establishing a television show, much like, the popular tv show “Glee” but I’m not sure how everything would work. First, how will you get the rights to cover a song, show it on TV and then possibly release it on an album?

    1. Carl, for a TV show you’ll need to acquire something called a synch license for each song you want to perform. It’s different than the type of license discussed in this article. There is no statutory rate or compulsory license for a synch license. You’ll want a lawyer to work out the rights for the show.

      For the album, though, you can simply follow the instructions above and acquire compulsory licenses.

  159. After reviewing this page, I think I already know the answer to this, but still need some clarification. I am creating a greeting service that basically provides customers with a video singing telegram. Each telegram is personalized to include an “Oldies” (Sinatra Style) cover song and will be transmitted to the customer as a personal web page with the video performance embedded. In the video, I am singing/performing the song to background tracks. From what I am reading, this sounds like I will be needing a synchronization license for each song. Is this correct, and if so, what are the most basic steps for me to take to get licensing for such a project? Thanks in advance for your guidance!

    1. First of all, that’s a very creative idea, or at least I’ve never heard of anyone else doing it!

      Unfortunately, there is no basic way to acquire synch licenses. There is no synch license equivalent to the compulsory license for audio recordings mentioned in this article.

      Also, I’m not sure there’s much of a precedent for your business model. I’m sure people sing parodies on YouTube all the time, but they are not monetizing the videos, and I don’t know the legality of it.

      If no one else here is able to help, I suggest putting your question in our forums, where it won’t be so easily lost in the shuffle of these comments and we can see if any of our readers on Twitter or Facebook can help.

      Good luck!

  160. Hi the page is great and realy helpful covering a lot of issues but cant seem to find an answer to this question. At what point does influence change to illegal? I am all for paying royalties where they are due but want to make sure I would even be in breach of any laws. If you are using somebody elses lyrics, thats obviusly worth paying royalties, somebody elses music, yes but what if you are to cover a song with your own music (and completely different genre) and your own lyrics but the lyrics are the same melody as original and the song as a whole is an obvious influence from the original song. What law does that come under? What licence would be needed? The cover (if it is even a cover?!) would be recorded and distributed. Thank you.

  161. Wow that was unusual. I just wrote an incredibly long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t appear. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again. Anyway, just wanted to say wonderful blog!

  162. Hi, A friend and i have a little situation where we want to do a song cover but he wants to change all the lyrics but the chorus. he also wants to post it on youtube, facebook and itunes maybe. do you know what regulations we would need to complete this task

  163. I didn’t read all the comments, so maybe someone covered this… It’s worth mentioning that if a song has never been distributed, then the author has the right to stop you from recording it. You can’t distribute a Neil Young song that he hasn’t released yet.

  164. Hello, I have an important question about copyright laws. In my band, we do a song called “Longbottom Leaf”, it is a rap about the Lord of the Rings. At the beginning of the song, the guitar player does a solo using a recognizable melody from Howard Shore’s soundtrack for the movies. The solo is short and in a new key. It is not note for note, and it is the only part of the song from the movie. Would it break copyright laws if we posted a live recording of the song with the solo on our band’s page? We really want to know before we post it, but there is already a youtube video of it online. Please help, thank you.

    1. That sounds like a quote, which is fine as long as the melody is an important hook within the composition of the song. Jazz musicians quote other people’s songs in their solos all the time.

      Just a reminder, I’m not a lawyer, however, my experience tells me you have nothing to worry about.

  165. Hey Cameron,
    I’m working on a touring singing competition for next year and was wondering if there’s an umbrella fee that would cover the entire 10 shows. They will be in different states in 500 to 1000 seat venues – 20 songs per show.

  166. Hi firstly great website wish I’d found it sooner than trawling the net. Great info and also good questions posted lots of stuff I wanted to know. I am a singer songwriter working on recording my album – I have one track I wrote but I want to include 2 lines from a Bob Marley track – I have been asking for permissions also contacted PRS just now as my home is UK but am in India. I have been performing live and previously the lead singer of a band – singing Feeling Good. I get such a response that I would like to add it to my own album so will be looking to get permissions and licence. Also I want to promote myself on my You Tube channel with a set of 6 cover songs – I sing but play no instruments so at times use backing tracks – will I need the licenses and a sync license I read about ???
    Awaiting an email from you – keep it all up :) Thanks.

  167. Cameron,
    I am looking to record 5 songs and put them on a web-page just so venues inquiring about hiring me to sing in their establishment can have something to listen to. I currently am not writing my own music and enjoy performing at restaurants and lounges. What do I need to do in order to cover any copyright licensing?
    In addition, if I only allow people to hear a few seconds of the song on a web-site, is there a need for copyright permission?

    I appreciate any feedback you have on this issue.


    Kris Charais

  168. Firstly, if I take a 20 second snippet of me performing a cover of a song, post it on my website and credit the songwriter(s) and urging people to buy their works, so people can hear me and decide if they might want to hire me because I don’t write my own material (and have no idea if I ever will), it is highly unlikely that anybody can take issue with it. Besides, you can’t blood from a turnip, as the old saying goes.

    Secondly, I do not see why, with the technology today, somebody like CDBaby and/or iTunes cannot work out an incremental mechanical licensing arrangement with Fox and Limelight. Wouldn’t everyone here be willing to pay a premium licensing fee if it was simply built into the fee for distributing your music? You fill out a blanket form agreeing, CDBaby or iTunes tracks the sales, collects the money, and settles up with the mechanical licensing agencies once a month. All you do is credit the songwriters when you upload the song for sale so they can figure out who gets the fees.

    You wouldn’t have to worry about paperwork, purchasing mechanical licenses in advance, etc. You just do what you’re good at, the distributors get compensated for their role in simplifying your life, and the licensing agencies get very accurate accountings of sales and a nice chunk of money every month (or quarter or whatever) to pass along to the songwriters.

    Wouldn’t you pay a 10-20% premium on the standard license fee if you never paid for any more units than you actually sold and never had to do any paperwork or accounting?

    I cannot imagine this would be anything but a tremendous boon for the recording musican. Not all of us are songwriters.

    1. I’m pretty sure a 30 second clip does not require any kind of license. That’s why all those online stores use 30 second clips. When iTunes switched to 90 seconds, it was a big deal for people who cared about that kind of thing.

      Regarding your second point, I agree, and I think everyone would agree. I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before that happens. There’s just a lot of red tape to sort out. It’s easier to leave the responsibility (and liability) to the artist right now. Once the lawyers can make sure all the money goes to the right people, we’ll see this sort of thing hit the market.

      1. even 30 seconds is considered infringement and is a prima facie violation of copyright law. There have been many successful and unsuccessful cases on with as little as fews second long guitar riff. I am an entertainment lawyer, specializing in copyright law.

        1. Brian, do you mean 30 seconds used commercially? Or maybe 30 seconds worth of another composition used in your own composition (and claiming it’s yours)?

          In those cases, yes, I can see how that would be a violation.

          iTunes and the like do not pay songwriters for the 30 streams. When I worked at a label, 30 seconds was our limit on streaming a recorded song for promotional use without having to acquire permission from the publisher. It happened all the time on artists websites.

          1. Promotional use (itunes) and an artist covering someone else’s work are deemed to be completely different in the eyes of the law. Itunes has the same interest as the artist, which is to exploit (or sell) that particular song. In the example of only covering 30 seconds of someone else’s material…is not for the benefit of the author, and therefore “should” be licensed.

        2. Brian,

          I was thinking of creating a video entertainment website like and Would I be liable for users posting cover songs on the website or would this fall into the hands of the user that posted it? Would I at all be liable? If you are a lawyer, would you be available to write up terms/condition and privacy policy for me if that is what is needed to protect myself? If so, would you be able to give me a price?


  169. I have read and read and it seems that the questions closest to mine are never really answered unless I just missed it, in which case I apologize, but here it is. I operate an upstart indie label with some great song writers. We don’t mind paying royalties if needed. Just want to know without a doubt if this is in fact necessary if we only use the music and not the lyrics as we all write our own original lyrics. The delivery of the songs also do not resemble the original song. This is common in Rap/HipHop and are known as a “remix.” However, I am working with RnB artists.

    1. I’m no expert, but it has always been my understanding that melody and lyrics are copyrighted, and if you use either you need to pay royalties. Chord progressions are not, however, which is why it was common for jazz musicians to write new melodies to favorite progressions (such as rhythm changes).

      1. Can this rule be applied to sampling or is that a whole other subject on its own. If I could sample music and just pay royalties via CD Baby or Itunes that would be awesome!

        1. Sampling requires an entirely different type of licensing, because you’re using a recording that is owned by somebody else.

          The compulsory license discussed in this article is for the underlying composition.

          When remixes are created, they are either commissioned by the owner of the original recording, or the remixer pays royalties for the samples.

  170. If you purchase a prepaid digital license via harry fox agency which covers USA, do you also have to purchase a license for Canada, UK etc… for everywhere your song may be purchased?

  171. I am looking to do a cover of a song that will appear in a promo that is only 1 min and 30 seconds long (just a portion of the song).

    Additionally, the cover will only be the instrumental of the song and will NOT include the lyrics.

    Do I then need to purchase a license for this? The promo is to sell products completely unrelated to the music.

    1. If it’s the promo is a video, you (or the person making the promo) will have to license it from the publisher. A compulsory license as discussed in this article does not cover use with video.

      Think about instrumental songs in a car commercial. The product has nothing to do with music, but the songwriter, publisher, and owner of the recording are all due royalties.

      1. On top of that, our company is a federal registered 501c3 non-profit. Does this make any difference?

        Or do I still need to get a sync license from the publisher?

  172. That would still be a yes. You could always ask the copyright holder if you could get the music at a discount, I believe, but it’s entirely up to them. After all, they put a lot of work into their music.

    You should also probably get some official legal answers before trusting us, too. We are musicians, not lawyers.

  173. Is it possible for the artist covering the songs to get their own royalties? In other words:
    If an artist covers a song – and gets tons of airplay; how do they get royalties? Of course they get paid thru their own record sales and downloads but what about airplay?

  174. We have a trio…if we play and record from 30 to 45 seconds of assorted older songs, can we piece them together and use them as ‘HOLD’ music at our company without infringing on anyone?

    Thank You…

    1. I believe 30 seconds is the cutoff for promotional use.

      If you’re just creating hold music, though, why don’t you just play some simple, nice sounding improvised melodies over standard chord changes? Does it have to be songs people know?

  175. First, thanks for all this factual info, well-done and informative.

    I’m in the process of creating an “album”. Most of the songs on the album will be my original written songs. But I also want to put at least one “cover” on it. “Prodigal Son” by Josh White. I used three of the original verses of his 1935 song, but “modernized” it – adding two verses of my own, and I play it on guitar completely different than the original.

    It is now a song about a runaway youth who gets addicted to drugs, becomes a petty thief, and ultimately HIV positive. (It’s a tear jerker).

    My question is this: Would I have to license it?


      1. Thanks for this particular info, but more generally for your whole site, and for the links to Limelight. The cost of licensing this song for inclusion is nominal, and will do so when the time is right.

        Thanks Again

  176. I recorded a cover and i want to put it up for people to listen, i am not putting it for sale or anything just want people to hear my cover. Does that break any laws?

  177. Uly I own a record label here in Canada, it depends, sorry to be vague but this relies on what song, what publisher and where you are living BUT! I would guess that the only problem you would get is a “Pull Down”from the publisher but I’m no lawyer, what you are doing requires “performance rights” from the publisher BUT your not selling it so I cant see the problem, again I could be wrong, in other words think of all the kids parents getting sued over their 10 year old signing a Lady GaGa song on Youtube!I dont see it happening LOL! Please refer to The Henry Fox Agency website for better info of even better if you are Canadian go to the SOCAN website or the equivalent in the US, Best of luck to you hope this helps a bit.

  178. I am a copyright attorney. To record and post (with any video – like on youtube, or your website) a new version of a copyrighted song (unless in the public domain), you will need both a “mechanical license” and a “synchronization license”. Both licenses are technically required, regardless of whether it is for profit or not. Though there are statory rates for the mechanical license, both can be negotiated. Keep in mind there are time restrictions on both licenses that affect cost.

    1. who sells ‘sync’ license’s;
      from what I can see, Harry Fox only sells downloads, mechanical’s, and streaming.

      1. Synch licenses do not have statutory rates, which means you have to negotiate the fee with the rights holder. The statutory rate is a fixed price, which is why companies like Harry Fox and Limelight can help you with mechanical licenses.

  179. Great article just one query on posting to YouTube. How do you stand if you post a video of a cover that was videoed live at a venue covered by a PRO ?

    1. Once the performance is recorded, it’s no longer a live performance. Certain types of rebroadcasting or replaying the video might generate royalties collected and paid for by the PRO (such as TV), but I don’t believe YouTube falls under that category.

  180. Hey thanks for such an informative post. I’ve read it all and every comment but I am still confused about what to do if I’m UK based. It seems we don’t have anything as good as Limelight here, but the PRS doesn’t seem to licence streaming audio, only physical things like CDs. I’m not looking at selling my covers at the moment, I just want them on a website so folks can hear them. I’m in the UK. If I upload them to a US based server (maybe soundbox?) can I just clear them through Limelight? Will that cover audio being streamed to places outside the US? What if I pay for my own website to be hosted on a US server? This actually seems more problematic than selling my covers!! There’s no video. Thanks!!

  181. This is a very useful and straight-on-the-money article. Thanks for doing it.

    Now, to make life really complicated. How do I go about recording covers for distribution (iTunes, CDBaby, etc.) of foreign songs? I’m especially interested in some works from Vietnam, China, and Japan.

    Any suggestions?


  182. So I want to record someone elses song for an album make the song a single and produce a video clip for tv AirPlay to promote the sale of the download. Royalty? Permission needed from publisher? Also to sell the video clip on line?

  183. Hi! I have been scrolling through this very helpful article but I couldn’t find any definitive answers about the question regarding licenses when selling your CD on a cruise ship. I would like to record a CD of mostly cover songs and sell it while I’m working as a guest performer on an American cruise line sailing in Europe and/or the Caribean, but I’d like to know if I will require any special license? Can I just use Harry Fox? Or what have other guest performers on cruise ships done? Any advice would be extremely helpful! Thanks!! :)

    1. I suspect using the normal means of licensing described in the article is sufficient, though I do not have any experience with this sort of thing directly. Perhaps ask this question in the Cruise Ship forum on the site.

  184. My question wasn’t answered anywhere. Is it legal to make a midi file of a song that was done by an artist, say in the 50’s or 60’s etc and then create a site and sell them as your own? I’m asking this because I see so many sites selling midi files of music that does not belong to that site nor the owner. To me this appears they are not just breaking the copyright laws but plagiarizing someone else’s work but also stealing royalties from the writer, performer who own the copyright to that particular song.

    1. Hi Ralph, If the site properly licensed the song, they can sell it. If they didn’t, or if they’re not giving proper credit to the authors, then I imagine it’s illegal (and immoral). If you’re talking about backing tracks, though, copyright does not cover chord progressions. If there’s no melody, then it might be ok.

  185. Hi Cameron,

    Super nice of you to help out so selflessly.

    I am building a mobile app / website where I wish to sell deconstructed songs (lyrics and chords) – by song. Any idea what kind of licensing I need? And how to go about securing those licenses?


  186. I recorded a cover song as the artist, doing the vocals and performances, and it was co-produced by me and someone else. Should they be on the copyright(of the sound recording)? Otherwise, should there be a separate contract between us outlining their percentage or points? I will be the one marketing it,so I want to be able to explore any distribution avenues on my own.

  187. See Don McLean on use of the term cover. While it is sadly true the use of this term has morphed beyond recognition, it is really misused here again and again to the point of having no meaning. Jazz musicians for example don’t play “cover” songs, whatever that those are and never have. They do play arrangements of tunes that others have written including standards, as well as tunes/compositions by members of their bands and associates and so forth. Some may be tunes that have not been performed before, others may have. They might arrange one of their own tunes in different ways again and again. This does not mean they are “covering” themselves. Copyright laws do not use the word “cover” and just like incorrect use of the word “theory” (in a non-musical sense!) in today’s world (when the person really means “hypothesis”). Consider words like: derivative works, arrangements, re-make, works of original authorship, etc. which are truly descriptive and vastly more accurate and precise.

    1. Actually the first paragraph of this article explains, in different words, exactly what Don McLean states in his article. I didn’t bring up the racist element of term because that’s a different discussion entirely.

      The term “cover song” is so widely used today the original meaning is lost, and nobody (as far as I’ve been able to tell) is trying to be racist.

      Also, when people want to release a recording of another artist’s song, they search “cover song” far more frequently than “derivative works” or “works of original authorship”, etc.

  188. Dear Cameron,
    I would like to record cover songs with my vocals using karaoke background music. I know to get mechanical license and went to the Harry Fox site. I read on the question/answer section they do not cover karaoke CD recordings. If I read this correctly are you familiar with easysong or to obtain a license.

    Thank You,

    1. To use the karaoke tracks you would probably have to license the recordings directly from the karaoke company, and then obtain mechanical licenses for the cover songs from the publishers (or through HFA, Limelight, etc.).

  189. So I am currently making a website and I would like to have me singing and playing covers of 10 songs on there. I just want to put them on for people to hear, with no plans to sell them. Do I need to obtain a liscence just to have them on my site for people to listen to?

  190. Hey Cameron! I have a question for you, I can’t find anything close to an answer anywhere!

    I want to release a tribute album, free digital download only (no physical copies). A collection of different artist covering tracks off a single artist particular album in order and whatnot, how do I have to go about doing this? Is it just the same thing as if I was going to sell it?

    Thanks so much for your help!

  191. Cameron,
    Didn’t see an answer to this question Can yo or anyone help me out?
    I recorded a beatles song as the artist, doing the vocals and performances, and it was co-produced by me and someone else. Should they be on the copyright(of the sound recording)? Otherwise, should there be a separate contract between us outlining their percentage or points? I will be the one marketing it,so I want to be able to explore any distribution avenues on my own.

      1. Excellent article!I recommend it to all musicians.Being a cover song does add some twists to the arrangment, so this helps alot.

  192. First of all, thank you for your article, it helped a lot.

    I have a question though: I am in a band (based on Europe) and we are going to record a cover song which will be released on CD by a label from a foreign country (within Europe too). So, we are not involved with the distribution of the cover song at all.

    Since mechanical licence concerns the distribution, is this a matter that should be arranged by the label solely, or are we (the band) also involved in this since we will record the song for this use?
    I mean, is this our job too or just the label’s to handle this part?

    Thank you.

    J. T.

      1. Thank you for the reply.
        In the worst scenario that the label fails to manage the mechanical license, do we have any legal involvement?

  193. Hi, I’ve purchase a song off itunes and want to use it as a trailer for the web. What is the best way i can do this.

  194. If a local band records a cover of a portion of a popular song to be used in the end credits of a short independent film, does the filmmaker need a compulsory license? Is there anything else that needs to be done?

  195. Cameron, thanks for the great info. If I were playing at a city park, or a church, or on a parade down the street, how would the licensing be taken care of? It wouldn’t be like a bar that pays a PRO for rights.

    Many thanks,

  196. We are a community theatre company who will be performing a children’s pantomime called Allice In Wonderland. We want to interject songs into the performance. Songs like “I’m A Believer’ written by Niel Diamond and made popular by The Monkees. SOCAN does not deal with this. Do we need permission or a license to perform this song infront of an 84 seat audience (for 8 performances)? Where do I get it?

  197. Dear Cameron:
    I am an artist who wants to do a one-woman show on the life of a now deceased artist and I would like to sing songs that have been produced by this deceased artist. What is the best way for me to proceed?
    Thank you.

  198. This was really helpful!. I just signed an artist and its my first client, I have been trying to figure out the licensing to record cover songs and you hit the nail on the head.
    Thank You

  199. What is meant by a 1:1 cover? I am having an old classic rock song recreated this way and only 30 seconds worth. This is what I was told: “or without getting the licensing , as long as you do not make any money from the song. That means that you could use it on YouTube or any other type of broadcast but it could not be monitized. As long as you do not generate any income from the track you are clear.”

    Is this correct?

  200. Cameron,
    If I were to put a number of cover songs into one, how would I ensure that each artists get royalties. Do I have to put their names down on the CD as well?

    1. You would have to pay royalties for each song, even though it’s in a medley, and credit all the composers. If you didn’t want to pay the statutory rate (9.1 cents per song) you could try negotiating with the publishers.

  201. Hey Cameron,

    Great article thanks.

    Are you aware of any special considerations when wanting to record and release a cover of a song from a musical theatre production? E.g. Les Miserables.

    I’ve done some previous research and found someone information that advises compulsory license was generally not available for musical theatre compositions “dramatic works”. Do you have any knowledge of that?

    If the musical in question had released a CD of the work, would that then qualify as “previously distributed” and therefore qualify it to be covered under a compulsory license?


    1. I’m pretty sure that if the song has been released on a CD it would qualify as a previously distributed work and could be licensed like any other cover song. If you’re able to find it on Harry Fox’s Songfile website, then you’d know for sure you could license it.

  202. Ive just been researching into getting the rights to being able to sell songs on my album, now i have no clue on how to even start this so i would really appreciate any help. Im wanting to make a cd of covers and put on the radio to then be able to sell to raise money and i am not sure on how to go about this. Im not even sure where i get a license etc..

    Many Thanks


  203. thanks for this great article.
    i was planning to running a service for playing a guitar background music for a singer who are like to cover or singing on mobile app such as sing app. but after i read this article, i dont think im going to do it.

    thanks again for your great article

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