Do you need a Licence for a Cover Song?

licence-cover-songUsing someone else’s hit song has often been a way for a new act to get heard and recognised.

Covering someone else’s material or song isn’t so much of a problem when performing live, but if you want to record and distribute that song as a record or a download, you’re going to need permission from the song’s publisher.

Starting at the beginning, many musicians won’t understand that there are two copyrights in every ‘record’ – there’s the recording that you make (which you generally will own unless it’s a ‘work made for hire’) and then there’s the underlying song or composition. Think of that as the thing you could write on manuscript paper as notes and words before a recording even existed. That right is what is owned by the companies that run the other side of the music business – the music publishers.

When you record a cover you’ll own the copyright in that recording but you’re going to need permission to use the song as you don’t own that copyright.

It can seem quite daunting with a whole load of legal hoops to jump through, and in some cases it may be a little difficult, but, for the majority of songs out there, this can actually be quite an easy process. Not least since most of the time the person whose song you’re covering can’t object or stop you. It’s just a matter of ‘dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s’!

The mechanical licence

To be able to release your you’l need something called a Mechanical Licence. This is the permission you need from the publisher for you to record and distribute the song that they own the rights to.

You may be lucky, and the song you’re considering using may be in the Public Domain. This is what happens after the track is of a certain age and no longer has the protection of copyright, usually 50 or 75 years after the death of the writer. Once this time has passed, the publisher no longer has rights over the song and it is then considered public property. Anyone can cover and record a song that is in the public domain without permission.

The music business has realised that this time period needs to be extended as some of the earliest pop and rock ‘n’ roll catalogue are now getting to that age where they won’t be protected by copyright and so you wouldn’t need a mechanical license. So it always good to check!

Finding out who owns the rights has become a lot easier now we have the internet. There are organisations in each country to help to find out who the publishers are. In the US there is Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) and/or ASCAP to get the publisher’s information.

Once you know who the publisher is, you can then apply for a mechanical licence.

There are also agencies that will set up the mechanical license for you. The Harry Fox Agency in the States has for years been the number one place to obtain a mechanical licence, and is still the largest provider of licensing agreements with a huge database. Alternatively, and very poular with the DIY musician fraternity you can also try Limelight, who also take care of the process from beginning to end. In the UK you can use the new PRS for Music, which is a merger of PRS and MCPS.

The reason that is it called a Mechanical Licence is that it refers to physical copies of a song, such as a vinyl record and or a CD (DVDs and Video tapes). You will have to pay a royalty to the publisher (which ultimately goes to the writer of the song you’ve covered) on the amount you manufacture, not the amount you sell. For doing limited runs under 2,500 copies there is a online system at Harry Fox called Songfile.

Using either Limleight or Songfile is very simple. After clicking the “Song Search” link and entering the title of the song covered, it searches the database for the types of licences available for it.

Select “mechanical license” and fill in the multiple-choice questions. Quantity of manufacture and country of sale, and country of distribution along with the type of company you are.

From this info they then calculate the fee to pay based on the length of each song and the number of units you plan to sell.  Based upon the statutory mechanical royalty rate, the money collected for each sale of your cover version goes directly to the songwriter and publisher.

Now there may be some cases when using these agencies that the song you wish to cover comes up saying “This song is not available for mechanical licensing“. This could be enough to put you off doing the cover version, but there may also be another path, and a legal one, because once a song has been commercially released by an artist, that artist’s song may be re-recorded and released by anyone who chooses to do so.

This is only the case if the melody/lyric isn’t substantially changed in your cover version, and you pay the proper fees/royalties directly to the song’s copyright holders.

Synch Licence

Another area that needs attention that’s often overlooked is what happens when you decide to make a video of the cover version. You may think at this stage that you have protected yourself enough making sure you have the required permissions, but video is another ball game all together.

What you are going to need here is a Synch (or synchronisation) Licence. You may think that you’re using your own recording here and that you have paid for permission to record the song, but you haven’t paid to have the lyrics and music synched to the video footage. Often overlooked, we hear of bands having their videos taken down from YouTube on occasion when this hasn’t been secured.

Users often think that as YouTube is required by law to have a number of broadcast licences, that they’ll be covered by these broadcast licences. You’re not covered.  These licences cover the broadcasting of each video and do not, however, cover your responsibility to secure all of the necessary licences and clearances required before uploading/publishing your video. You guarantee that you have cleared all necessary rights to the video when you upload or publish it to YouTube.

So if you’re planning to record a cover version of someone else’s song, please take care of this business before you record your tune.

Using YouTube is a great tool for promotion, so getting the licences early is something that all musicians should factor into their plans. It’s true of course that many times you’ll be able to record a cover and publish it to YouTube (or release it digitally or even on CD) and nothing will happen from the rightful owners of the song. But, equally, just when you least expect it, you’ll find someone demanding that you get the appropriate licence and pay them a royalty – or, much worse, they’ll have your song taken down from all over the web just when it’s starting to get you some attention.



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Keshia - July 1, 2016 Reply

Hi, I have a question for anyone who can answer. I was thinking of remaking a musical in my town, because no famous musicals ever takes place in it. So I was wondering if there are any permissions I need to ask in order to use the same story and music. I’d like to point out that I’m not going to earn anything from it. The money will be used to repay the place and accesories and the rest (if there is) will be given to charity.

    Ian - July 3, 2016 Reply

    Hi Keshia

    Musicals require a ‘Grand Rights’ licence in order for you to perform them.

    These are generally not cheap but some owners of the rights (music publishers) make exceptions and allow them to be performed for a small fee – for example, for school productions.

    The only way to deal with this an put on a local production is to get the grand rights licence. Anything else would likely lead to being sued!

    Find the owner of the rights of the musicals you want to put on and approach them all until you find one that will allow you to do it for a fee that you can afford.

    I would suggest approaching them with the idea that you’re trying to build a community musical theatre group and you might get lucky.

    Here’s some more info:

    Good luck.


K Cooks - July 19, 2016 Reply

When I purchase the license for a cover tune, and I hire a producer, how do I ensure that he gets his percentage of the royalties from the cover song that we sell?

    Ian - July 20, 2016 Reply


    You will need to pay the producer royalties separately – on whatever percentage you agree. I managed producers for a very long time and anything from 1% to 3% was standard for a long time although some producers can get as much as half of the available royalty these days if their input is more akin to collaboration.

    You’ll need to agree this before release and agree to pay that share or get the releasing label to contract with the producer for that share.

    So the producer is just getting royalties from the sale of the recording. The licence for the cover is paying royalties to the owner of the original song – these are two separate things so the producer won’t get any of that royalty. It all goes to the writer or publisher of the song that you cover.

    I hope that makes some sense – I think a post explaining the basic copyrights in music might be very helpful!


Far - July 20, 2016 Reply

hi. Please what kind of license or permissions would i need if i wanted to create a karaoke software? thanks!

    Ian - July 20, 2016 Reply

    Hi Far

    I’m not completely sure but as far as the songs go you would need some kind of cover licence to make the karaoke versions. You might also need other licences due to the way that karaoke is performed. I doubt it as these would normally be covered by the venues (a public performance licence).


Carla - September 26, 2016 Reply


Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and insight here.

I would like to cover a song for church purposes that was released as a popular ballad almost 30 years ago. I found out who wrote the song, but I don’t know how to find out if they still have the rights or if I need to get permission from someone else. If the cover is recorded and then sold, which is a possibility but not in the plan now until I get permission to write the cover, what rights do I need to obtain before recording it for sale. It is my understanding that I can cover and have it performed before a group, if there are no sales or money involved, is this correct?

Thank you again!

    Ian - September 26, 2016 Reply

    Hi Carla

    We have covered this kind of situation in the comments above before so do have a look through those as well.

    In short, the legal position is that you need to have a licence just to make the cover recording. In practice, nobody ever does this and people record what they like and then get permission if they are going to release it. And you will need a mechanical licence for permission to have made the recording for any kind of release, whether that’s free or on sale.

    Again, in practice the very vast majority will record a cover and release it for free (YouTube and Soundcloud etc) without ever getting permission or a licence and in almost all cases this is fine – but it is in fact and infringement and that would make you liable.

    A song is still in copyright until 75 (or 50) years after the death of the last writer – depending on where in the world the rights arise. So this song will definitely still be in copyright.

    Hope that is some help.


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