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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Vic Stathopoulos - July 6, 2012 Reply

I’m in the opposite situation. I am trying to get other people to sing my music. I have considered doing cover songs, but I feel my own songs have the edge when I perform them. Also it seems to me alot of hassle to get permission to cover song, hence, I have decided to only write my own. However I think its great if an artist can create great cover versions of songs and this is a good way of people discovering you. Look at the Beatles alot of their early songs were cover. Please note: if your not a songwriter, its easier to cover songs than to spend lots of time learning to write songs. Good luck people. Vic Stathopoulos.

    Ian - July 8, 2012 Reply

    Thanks for that comment Vic. Your point about it being easier to cover great songs than write them is very true, but it’s also part of the learning process. The Beatles became such great songwriters partly because they learnt to play every Rhythm and Blues track released whilst they were doing their mammoth sets in Hamburg – meaning they learnt the basics of chord structure, melody etc as they developed.

    Aaron Nicholson - March 10, 2015 Reply

    Where can I hear or see some of your songs to see if I or one of my friends would like to cover them?

    Oliver Dagum - October 13, 2015 Reply

    Hi Vic,

    I know what you mean. I too would like other people to sing my originals. Unfortunately the reality is no one knows your songs. What do I type to see your music? No one types your name or the name of your song in youtube unless you have thousands of followers already. So cover songs is a marketing tool for listeners to see your originals. You can look at it like that. Does not mean we suck as songwriters but getting your music out there to shine among others are hard unless you lead them to you. Wish you the best.

    Oliver Dagum - July 9, 2012 Reply

Useful post! well explained!

DiXoN - July 10, 2012 Reply

Your article was ahold find for me at this time. Iam gaining some attention performing my renditions of cover songs live and I have considered getting the license to make recordings of those songs. Thanks for the info. DiXoN

Juliet - July 22, 2012 Reply

What about rights for streaming? If you are going to record a cover and NOT make physical copies, but release the cover song only on Spotify and Pandora? What if you’re doing a digital only release and selling on Amazon, iTunes, etc.? What type of lisence would you obtain in those situations? I know the publisher gets $ from Pandora and from Spotify (and YouTube) if the publisher registered with SoundScan,) but what does the artist covering the song need to do regarding licensing?

    Jan - January 29, 2016 Reply

    Hi. I understand that a mechanical license is required when selling a cover version in digital stores.

    My question remains: Who has to pay for it? The covering artist or the digital stores?
    Why do I have to pay for the mechanical license and not the selling stores, like iTunes / Spotify?
    Technically, it’s not me that is making a copy of that work. It’s iTunes / Spotify, right?

    Songwriters are claiming for royalties at stores:

    What if all payments by iTunes / Spotify, incoming via a distributor like CDBaby or Tunecore, are for duplication of my new created master recording?

      Ian - January 31, 2016 Reply

      Hi Jan

      I’m afraid this is a murky situation.

      I believe that the legal position in the US is that the royalty paid to a label (or artist if they deliver direct) by iTunes includes the mechanical royalty so that entity is then legally responsible for finding the correct person to whom that mechanical royalty should be paid.

      I don’t really know how this has come to pass – you’re technically right in saying that the mechanical reproduction is effected by iTunes so it should perhaps be that they find and pay the rights ownere of the underlying song. However, as I understand it that’s not what happens!

      So, that means that if you directly upload a cover to iTunes and Spotify then when you receive your royalties they will, at least in the US, be inclusive of that mechanical royalty and you should find who to pay and pay them.

      There’s more on this issue from the trade body that I’m a member of here in the UK –

      It is truly a can of worms!


Juliet - July 22, 2012 Reply

Oops… I meant SoundExchange, not SoundScan. 🙂

    Admin - July 22, 2012 Reply

    Hi Juliet

    If you’re doing a digital release it’s exactly the same as a physical release (streaming or download) you still need a mechanical licence from Harry Fox / Limelight.


Juliet - July 22, 2012 Reply

But how would you do the number of releases? There’s no way to know how many copies people will download.

    Doug - July 23, 2012 Reply

    … and what if you’re giving it away as a free download?

    I assume if you released a live recording of a cover it would be no different to a studio recording?

      Ian - September 2, 2012 Reply

      Absolutely Doug. The fact that you give it away free is legally irrelevant. Strictly speaking you still need a licence but as I have said before you’d be extremely unlucky to be prosecuted if it was done on a small scale – all be it that you do leave yourself open to that.

    Ian - September 2, 2012 Reply


    It’s calculated on an ongoing basis. You pay either nothing or for a set number of sales at the beginning and then more as more are sold.


Alex Holz - July 23, 2012 Reply

Good information – one thing worth noting is that Limelight’s licenses don’t expire and we offer bulk discounts (see our pricing page at

@Juliet – most artists/labels estimate based on past sales. You can start with 25-200 (the higher amount = better so you don’t have to come back to reorder right away) and reorder when necessary.

BTW – The streaming licenses are usually only needed if you’re streaming from your own site. Spotify/Rhapsody actually handle this license on your behalf.


Veronica - September 11, 2012 Reply

My question is around live performance. i thought the venue had to have a special licence for you to perform cover songs… I’m thinking of performing a song at a church (not a wedding or anything) does the church need a special licence?


    Admin - October 23, 2012 Reply


    They simply need to have a public performance licence – this covers all songs, and almost every venue has it.


Anne NGB - October 15, 2012 Reply

Thanks !
I didn’t know that…I’m going to share it !!

Ian - October 26, 2012 Reply

If I’m selling a physical record online do I need mechanical licenses for every country that I sell to or just the country that I am based in?

    Admin - October 27, 2012 Reply

    Hi Ian

    You need a mechanical licence for the copies you manufacture and you get that in the country where you are based. It’s a licence to make the physical copies, not to sell them.


      Ian - October 27, 2012 Reply

      Then why does it ask where you are selling the records when trying to buy the license online? I’m looking to manufacture the records in the US but I am based in Canada and will be selling them online from here. I was told by one of the licensing companies that I would need a license in both countries.

        Ian - November 13, 2012 Reply

        Ian – sorry for being so slow!

        In my experience, you get the licence in the country of manufacture, regardless of where they will be sold. Then, some countries require an import licence to deal with the sale of records in one country where the mechanicals have been paid in another.

        See this from Harry Fox –

        In your case, I would recommend paying through Harry Fox and looking to see what the issues are in importing them back into Canada. Don’t worry after that as you’ll have paid for the license regardless of where they are ultimately sold.

Jah - November 25, 2012 Reply

My question is. What is needed for using the track meaning music and lyric melody. But lyrics are original.. Uh mostly rappers do this and they place on mixtapes for promotions. But now singers are doing it and feel they have made a new song. How do I copyright that?

    Ian - November 30, 2012 Reply

    Hi Jah – sorry for not getting back to you quicker.

    You can’t lay a new lyric/rhyme over somebody else’s music legally without a licence. The truth is that rappers do indeed do this all the time on mixtapes without getting the necessary licence and pretty much nobody ever gets sued. It’s the reality of how music works in that genre at a street level – even for major artists.

    So, in theory you do need a mechanical licence. In practice nobody does!

    The element that you have created that is new and original to you is copyrighted to you by the simple act of creating it. Proving it might be another matter.

JB - March 14, 2013 Reply

Hi Ian,
In the circumstance where I want to take the chord structure and a few small melody “hooks” from a song, but otherwise lyrics, instrumentation, and most melody will be different, do I still need a mechanical license, or is there some sort of partial license whereby the original writer does not get 100% credit? The bulk of the creative effort would not be from the original track…

Any thoughts on how this works?
Thanks for any insight you might have…

    Ian - March 15, 2013 Reply

    Hi JB

    If you take any element of an existing song the basic legal premise is that your new work would be an infringement of the original work. If you’re only taking bits and adding new original parts then you might be able to gain permission from the writers that you have borrowed from to call your new song a new original work and share a percentage of your new work with them.

    However, in this situation the writer of the original work holds all the cards – you need their permission and they may well argue that your new song is essentially a cover and that they are therefore entitled to 100%.

    There is no mechanism for this – in each case it needs to be worked out by agreement.

    As an example, the British band The Verve added a whole new song to a melody lifted from a Rolling Stones track when they wrote ‘Bittersweet Symphony’. The Stones took 100% of the publishing.

    All that said, if you are yet to release this and are aspiring rather than signed, my advice is to write the song, record the track and play it in your shows without seeking permission. If anything begins to happen, clear it then.


Charlie - April 11, 2013 Reply

Hi all,

I was wondering what do producers have to do to use cover songs in competition shows like the voice?

    Ian - April 12, 2013 Reply

    Hi Charlie

    The TV producer (as opposed to the record producer) gets a synchronisation licence (and sometimes a mechanical licence as well) from the publisher of the song in order to be able to create a cover (using their own recording) and to synchronise it with the TV images.


RR - April 22, 2013 Reply

I’m planning to put up some YouTube covers (w/ music video), but I’m not planning to distribute anything. Do I still need these licenses? Does the fact that I am putting up a video constitute 1 digital copy of the song?

    Ian - April 25, 2013 Reply

    Hi RR

    Legally, yes, your single YouTube cover is a copy and you strictly speaking do need a licence.

    However, in the real world, 99.9% of people don’t get them. Real world advice is put your cover up and start worrying about licensing it when your view count us in the hundreds of thousands.


Rose McDougall - May 2, 2013 Reply

Hello. I am a grandmother who is interested in selling my one and only CD of cover songs on you tube. What do I need to do? How do I upload my CD on to the you tube site? Is there a company that will handle both the licensing and uploading and selling for me?

Thank you.

    Ian - May 4, 2013 Reply


    The best thing I think you could do in your particular situation is set yourself up with They will deal with selling the CD’s form you. Then you can upload the music to YouTube and simply link to your CD Baby page from the description and mention it at the end of the video too.


nathan - May 14, 2013 Reply

What if you’re selling less than 50 copies and all profits go to benefit charity?

    Ian - May 14, 2013 Reply

    Technically that still requires a mechanical licence, but…….

      Dean - October 3, 2015 Reply

      Hi Ian.
      Myself and a group of singers want to record a cover of Do They Know its Christmas to sell at a venue with all the proceeds going to charity and was also wondering if we needed a licence fir this too so if you could expand on that issue that would be great. Cheers

        Ian - October 3, 2015 Reply

        Hi Dean

        Yes you do. Technically any cover will require a mechanical licence from the original publisher. This is granted automatically (unless you radically change the arrangement) by the correct agency for your country – MCPS in the UK and Harry Fox in the US.

        Hope that helps.


Dave - June 17, 2013 Reply

I’d like to cover Right where it belongs by nine inch nails for ending credits in “Indie” movie, what would be the steps I’ll have to do?

    Ian - June 18, 2013 Reply

    Hi Dave

    You’ll need to get a mechanical licence – try Harry Fox or Limelight as mentioned above – at the point you do anything commercial with the cover. Theoretically you need it at the point of making the recording but it’s not until you do something with it that anyone is going to know.

    However, since you want to put it in a movie, you are going to have to get a synchronization licence for the song (you won’t need one for the recording as you will own your own cover). You’ll need to identify the publisher, send them your cover and details of the movie and get them to licence it.


Mattea - August 26, 2013 Reply

Hi, thank you for sharing this article!

I’m planning on doing a Capella covers of hit songs on my YouTube channel.

I’m not planning on selling anything- just simply recording my voice only on the camera, [absolutely no background music] and uploading the videos to YouTube. What license[s] would I need? mechanical?

Also, I’m a little confused about the licenses. Forgive me if I ask a question that has already been answered in this article.

When you get a mechanical license, you said the fee is $20-30. Is that a one time fee that you pay, and your allowed to cover any song legally on YouTube [im not selling anything. Just posting a video of me singing without any other instruments involved] or do you have to pay that fee per song/video you upload? And do you still need permission to do the specific song[s]?

Oh, and one more quick question. Can you monetize your cover songs on YouTube?

Thankyou for your time! I really appreciate all the information you have given me!

    Ian - September 2, 2013 Reply

    Hi Mattea

    No, the fee for the mechanical licence is per song – so you need a new one for each cover song, and you need permission per song – legally speaking.

    However, when your are talking about covers on YouTube the reality is that almost no-one obtains a licence – they simply make the cover and put it up. That does leave you open to the owner of the song taking action against you but it almost never happens. I can’t suggest that you do the same but, as I say, almost nobody gets a licence for YouTube covers.

    And, yes, you can monetise YouTube covers. Depending on what the owner of the song has done on YouTube, they can also monetise your version if they are set up properly – which they may or may not be.

    Hope that helps.


      Kobus - September 24, 2013 Reply

      Hi Ian

      I would like to post a music video of a cover of a song that I made, in the cover I am only using the same lyrics. What is the worst that could happen if I don’t have a license. I’m from South Africa and I the cover is an American song.


        Ian - October 3, 2013 Reply

        Hi Kobus

        Strictly speaking you need a mechanical licence to record a cover, let alone release one or post it online.

        However, it is exceptionally rare to have any comeback for doing that without one as the system of obtaining licences has evolved over the years to allow people to create covers and then get the licence.

        In your position you should look at the options in the article but you will almost certainly be OK if you make the cover and post to YouTube without a licence. Literally millions of people do this and there is very little chance of your being sued, although technically that is possible.


          Tony - October 10, 2013 Reply

          Hi Ian,
          I am a videographer that just geared up and started doing videos for cover bands. They want to post the finished videos on their You Tube channel. Will i also be open to a lawsuit as the person that created the video.
          Also, am i right in assuming that if the owners of the song decide to monetize a video it is covered under You Tube’s agreements with the respective publishing co.
          It really seems like the copyright laws haven’t caught up with the digital era.
          Thanks, Tony

          Ian - October 14, 2013 Reply

          Hi Tony

          It’s unlikely that you’d be liable but that does depend on exactly the circumstances and the applicable laws – there may well be some US stuff (assuming that you’re in the States) that I am unaware of. In essence the people infringing the copyright are those that own the thing which infringes – that isn’t you – that’s the band.

          That said, as I have pointed out many times in different threads on the site, it is unlikely that you’ll get sued for putting covers on YouTube – it is possible and I can’t say that it doesn’t happen but it is very rare and you’d be very unlucky.

          And, yes, you are right – if a publisher who owns that song chooses to monetise covers of it on YouTube the Content ID system allows them to do that.


Tony - October 10, 2013 Reply

Hi Ian,
I am a videographer that just geared up and started doing videos for cover bands. They want to post the finished videos on their You Tube channel. Will i also be open to a lawsuit as the person that created the video.
Also, am i right in assuming that if the owners of the song decide to monetize a video it is covered under You Tube’s agreements with the respective publishing co.
It really seems like the copyright laws haven’t caught up with the digital era.
Thanks, Tony

Curt - October 10, 2013 Reply

Hi, we are licensing a cover song but a friend is doing the instrumentals for the song, do we obtain a mechanical license for the lyrics and also a separate mechanical license for the instrumentals???? Thanks!

    Ian - October 14, 2013 Reply


    No. Although you might be creating them separately, to the original publisher they are the same song. You get one mechanical licence and that covers both the lyric version and the instrumentals.


mike groisman - October 18, 2013 Reply

Can I make a music covers for a free download?
I play at the NYC subway station and I let people to take my cd’s for free.
On my cd’s there are also a cover songs.
Is it a big problem to make a cd’s with a cover songs for free?



    Ian - November 12, 2013 Reply

    Hi Mike

    Strictly speaking you do need to get a mechanical licence from, in your case as you’re in the US – Harry Fox, but the reality ids that selling CDs at that level you would have to be the world’s unluckiest man for someone to decide to sue you. It could happen but I think it’s a one in a million chance.

    In your position I would carry on as you are.


chantelle cattermole - November 18, 2013 Reply

Hi there, we want to record a song for a childrens charity, all cds sold and downloads made all the money goes to the charity, do I need to get a licence? planning on making 100 cds thanks

Angela - December 13, 2013 Reply

I have made recorded a cover but the song mixes two songs from the same artist. Would I have to get 2 seperate licenses for one song?

    Ian - December 13, 2013 Reply

    Hi Angela

    Yes, you’d need a licence for each song. In fact, the fact that it is the same artist is irrelevant. In this case it is only relevant who wrote and who publishes the song.


Mike - March 2, 2014 Reply

We want to video acoustic versions of a small group of musicians performing cover songs for people in our church to be able to learn these songs. We want to post them online. Are there specific licenses and permissions that we need?

    Ian - March 11, 2014 Reply

    Mike – this is the same question as we’ve answered a few times in this thread. The legal answer is that anyone recording covers needs to get a mechanical licence – the act of recording them requires it as does the manufacture of physical copies (CD’s). The real world answer is that no-one gets one for the recording and 99.99% of people that make a few CDs (a hundred or so) don’t bother either. In your shoes, I’d just do it and not worry – you’d be very unlucky for a publisher to find out and care enough to take action against a church group.

Matthew - March 10, 2014 Reply

is there a cost difference between HFA and Limelight. And is there a difference in turnaround time?


    Ian - March 11, 2014 Reply

    Matthew – they are pretty much the same. For clearing a cover HFA’s Songfile service charges $16 ( and Limelight charges $15 ( They can be very quick but allow 10+ days. Also remember that the fee is for processing, you will then have to pay the mechanical royalty at the rate that applies to your use. For a 1000 CD’s this might be $500 or thereabouts across all tracks. Divide by the number of tracks to get the amount for a specific track on the CD.

Jackie - March 21, 2014 Reply

I am producing a documentary and have an artist who will do covers of pop tunes in the doc. In order to legally use those covers in the film, what license(s) must I get and how do I go about getting them?

    Ian - March 26, 2014 Reply

    Hi Jackie – legally you will need a sync licence and perhaps a mechanical licence as well. Start with the mechanical copyright society in your country – MCPS in the UK or Harry Fox in the US. Call up their enquiry line and they’ll help you out.


Gio - April 3, 2014 Reply

Hi my names is Gio, I just recorded a song from a popular singer who performed the song in her last movie. The cd soundtrack include a version of the song with only a few words by the singer (like a karaoke version) and that’s the version I have used. Now I want to produce a musical video with the song. This is just for me and share with friends without making any money out of it. What do I need to do to avoid any legal problems? Thank you

    Ian - April 3, 2014 Reply


    As I’ve said a few times in this thread – there’s two positions here – the legal one is that you need a synch licence and a mechanical licence. The real world answer is that you are 99.99% likely to be fine doing it with no clearance if it is just for your friends – even if you put it on YouTube.

    You’re not supposed to but it is very unlikely anyone will take action against you.


diana - April 20, 2014 Reply

So just to clarify if someone is performing cover songs live (but not recording them) you do not need permission or a licence of any kind??

Katie Parker - July 28, 2014 Reply

Do I still need to do these things if I’m just wanting to post it on Youtube?

    Ian - August 1, 2014 Reply

    Hi Katie

    I think I’ve answered that here before. Legally speaking you need a synchronisation licence and / or a mechanical licence to record and then make a video for a cover of someone else’s song.

    99.9% of people don’t bother getting them and very occasionally they will get them pulled down or other action taken against them. Almost always, nothing is done.

    That is not advice to do nothing and just upload, but the risk is very low.


Diana - August 18, 2014 Reply

I wanted to know what kind of licence I need to record instrumentals of existing songs and distribute/sell them? The same idea like the site is used for.
Thank you in advance,


    Ian - August 18, 2014 Reply

    Hi Diana

    You will need a mechanical licence.


      Diana - August 19, 2014 Reply

      But what if the instrumentals would be only piano versions of the songs (acoustic versions) (e.g. a dance song into a piano version of the song)? Would a mechanical licence suffice?

dips - October 7, 2014 Reply

I just recorded a song that contains SOME lyrics of a outdated song by a very famous act but it is not necessarily a cover of the song. There is no melody or arrangement similarities to the original song just a few borrowed lyrics. Do I still need to obtain a license? and how a license should look like in writings?

    Ian - October 7, 2014 Reply


    That sounds like it could still be an infringement. The general law (depends where you are in the world!) looks at whether what you have used is ‘substantial’! What that exactly means is open to debate by lawyers.

    However, if you aren’t going to be recording this track, releasing it and expect it to sell a lot of copies (by which I mean more than a few thousand) then you will almost certainly be OK to go ahead without a licence.

    Check this article –

    As you’ll see you can be unlucky even if you aren’t having commercial success with something that infringes someone else’s song, but this is very unusual.

    So, I can’t advice you that it is risk free but you’d have to be very unlucky.

    What normally happens is people record what they like and use it on a DIY level without clearance and clear it/get a licence if things start to take off. Occasionally a few people run into trouble but 99.99% are OK with this approach.

    Hope that helps.


John M. - October 18, 2014 Reply

All the questions seem geared to uploading to You Tube. I video myself doing cover songs and post them on my Facebook account for my friends. Should I be getting licenses for these videos?

    Ian - October 18, 2014 Reply

    Hi John

    The basic law applies in the same way wherever you are using a cover recording or video. It is the making of the video that requires a licence. The distribution (i.e. uploading) is just a further cat and therefore infringement.

    So, strictly speaking you would need a licence. The truth – nobody gets one for uploading to Facebook. The way most people do this is they make the video, they post it and if there is any comeback or if it takes off they go and get a licence.

    That is, of course, not my advice. It’s just how it is.

    At your own risk.


gap - October 26, 2014 Reply

I know you might of answer this question but i want to do a cover song where i sing some parts and the original singer sings the other parts. do i still need a license

    Ian - November 6, 2014 Reply


    Yes, you’d need a licence. Also, if I guess correctly, you’re doing this without the original singer’s consent which could definitely be a problem. If, on the other hand, they are involved, you’d still need a mechanical licence.


Do you need a License for a Cover Song? | StockAge - October 30, 2014 Reply

[…] need something called a Mechanical License. This is the permission you need from the publisher for you to record and distribute the song that […]

Caroline - November 19, 2014 Reply

I am the co-ordinator of a local Constituted Voluntary Group (like a small charity, but without a registered number) who raise funds to feed the homeless in our town. We’d like to record a song to sell (or request a donation for) locally, and wondered if you could please shed some light on the legality of our situation? We may or may not alter some lyrics to make it relevant to our area. We will probably use a customised backing track, as there’s a chance some local musicians would like to participate in the recording too.
Many thanks,

    Ian - November 21, 2014 Reply

    Hi Caroline

    I’m afraid it’s the same answer I have given a number of times here.

    The legal position is that if you record a cover you need to get a licence – a mechanical licence. This is further complicated if you change the music or words from the original – you’d need to get specific and separate permission from each of the writers and publishers of the original – this is usually done directly and on a case by case basis.

    However, in the real world and given that you are charitable, most people wouldn’t bother when recording a song for a few hundred copies. Human nature is such that even if the rights owners discovered what had been done they would be unlikely to take cation against you given the reasons you have for making the track.

    That said, as I have said before, ;legally you would be liable.

    Hope that helps.


Tim - December 6, 2014 Reply

Hi Ian
I am managing a band and we are putting covers up on You Tube. I would like to be safe and get a licence. I understand I would need to get a sync licence however I am unable to find the owners. Do you have any advice on how to find the owner and contact them?

    Ian - December 6, 2014 Reply


    You should be able to get a licence from the MCPS in the UK or Harry Fox in the US (or whatever your national mechanical copyright society is). They will have the most complete records of the rights owners of the songs.

    In many cases they are not empowered to grant synch licences for those owners but they should be able to tell you who they are and pass you on to them.


Andy - February 10, 2015 Reply

I took a series of photos of recent snow storms near my home in a Boston, MA suburb. I created a photo slideshow and added the Rolling Stones’ “Winter” as a soundtrack. I want to post this on Facebook – not to sell or for profit – just to share with friends and family. Am I infringing on copyright or can I safely post as intended? Thank you.

    Ian - February 10, 2015 Reply

    Hi Andy

    Technically if you use someone else’s music you need to get a synch licence. Therefore making this video and putting it on YouTube will infringe the rights of the writer, publisher and recording owner.

    Although I can’t advise you to ignore that, millions of people everyday do this without any comeback.


Morris Friedland - March 10, 2015 Reply

Is it legal to use instruments in place of the original lyrics of a song if I pay the mechanical?

    Ian - March 11, 2015 Reply

    The answer is – kind of. If you change anything when you record a cover you MAY be creating an ‘unauthorised arrangement’ which would need additional permission – since you are changing the original song. However, in my opinion, changing a top line from vocal to instrumentation wouldn’t be such an arrangement. It’s more akin to an instrumental version. If you get a mechanical licence you should be all set.


Joe - March 16, 2015 Reply

My band performs live originals and covers. Some of the covers we perform are bluegrass standards dating back 50+ years and others are more modern bluegrass, folk, and rock tunes. Some of the venues we play at don’t have a PRO license so we’re sticking to playing originals there. For the older music or even the more modern songs, is there a site where it can be confirmed whether or not a band/song is protected by one of the major recording companies like BMI? For instance, I know Johnny Cash is one that BMI is looking out for, but what about songs that were performed and recorded by the Grateful Dead that weren’t there’s to begin with?


    Ian - March 16, 2015 Reply

    Hi Joe

    You need to assume that any song whose writer (or any of them if multiple writers) died less than 75 years ago is in copyright and owned by someone.

    Therefore playing a song that isn’t written by you in a venue would mean that ASCAP or BMI would be collecting on that performance.

    However, and this is not advice to ignore the law, if I was in a bluegrass band I’d play whatever songs I wanted to, whether they were covers or not and regardless of whether the venue has a PRO licence or not – unless the venue asked me not to.


Can You Make Money On Youtube Covers New York • Home Business Ideas - March 20, 2015 Reply

[…] Do you need a Licence for a Cover Song? | Make It In Music – Anyone can cover and record a song that is in the public domain without permission. … so you need a new one for each cover song, and you need permission per song … And, yes, you can monetise YouTube covers. Depending on what the owner of the song has done on YouTube, … […]

Ray - April 1, 2015 Reply


I have replayed melodies and/or interpolations of other artists’ music in my music.

I want to put these recordings on CD for my own use, not to sell.
I may also give these to my friends/others. Again, not sell.

However, I would like to copyright my recordings.

How should I proceed?

    Ian - April 1, 2015 Reply

    Hi Ray

    The copyright in your new compositions and recordings is owned by you from the moment of creation. You do not need to do anything to copyright them – it simply exists by the act of making them. However, many people will tell you to file them for registration at the US Copyright Office. This does not create the copyright but gives you proof of a date when your copyright came into existence – i.e. evidence, should you ever need it.

    That said, if you have another way to show the date of creation (perhaps some proof that a CD was on sale at a certain date) then it may well not be worth the expenses of filing.

    However, if your new compositions and recordings include elements of another’s work they will infringe the copyright of that third party. Peculiarly, you still own the copyright in your creations, it’s just that they also infringe the rights of another.

    That infringement exists when you make it. Commercial use isn’t required.

    However, it is almost never the case that someone will get sued for an infringement that no-one knows about. So if I make an infringing recording in my home studio and it never sees the light of day it is still an infringement but how can I be sued if no-one knows?

    As soon as you give it to people that changes and you could end up being discovered. And then sued.

    However, in that case, and if you have simply made a few CDs for friends the chances are very remote and if you were discovered, although you’d have no real defence it would be an unpleasant plaintiff who decided to take any legal action – although they could.

    So, to be clear, you could be sued just for making an infringing work (a composition or recording). The selling isn’t the thing that makes it infringing, it’s the creating.

    OD - October 13, 2015 Reply

    Hi Ray,

    Anytime you use other peoples music without the proper licenses can leave you open for copyright infringement lawsuits in the future, Even if it’s not to sell. What if you give this to someone and they put your music in a video as a background music and the video becomes viral? Now a days there is no such things as personal use.
    It’s ironic how you want to copyright your recording when you yourself are infringing on other peoples recording. How is it you want to protect yourself from someone stealing your music when you just stole parts of the music from someone else.
    Hope you see my point and get the proper licenses. I wish you the best man. Contact an entertainment attorney if you really want to copyright your music so he can explain it to you further.


      Ian - October 13, 2015 Reply

      OD – can’t argue with you. I do sometimes suggest (not recommend) that people can ‘wing’ it when doing covers – perhaps on YouTube or where their exposure is limited – but the bottom line is (and I do always point this out) an infringement is plain and simple and you do open yourself to liability if you don’t get the licence.


Alan - July 10, 2015 Reply

Looking to make a DVD of covers all from one band.

I know you need the publishers permission, but I see the PRS offer a licence a DVD 1 that look like it covers this is this correct

    Ian - July 10, 2015 Reply

    Hi Alan

    No, the PRS license public performance. You need a mechanical licence from the MCPS. They are now an allied company – the MCPS – PRS Alliance – but you need to talk to the MCPS part.


    Oliver Dagum - October 13, 2015 Reply

    Hi Alan,

    You need to contact the publishers from PRS and pay for the sync licenses for cover videos and mechanical licenses of you are going to sell the cover songs. If you really want to do this I would hire an entertainment attorney and make sure you are CC’d on the correspondence so you know how to do it in the future should you want to do it. Hope this helps.

    Oliver Dagum

Kimberly McMickle - December 24, 2015 Reply

For the past several years I have been taking Karaoke versions from YouTube and completely writing my own lyrics to them and singing them on video. They are of a more serious nature, like how to cope with depression or prayer…Are these wrong for me to post? Would they still be considered a parody? I put them all on private on my YouTube channel until I can find out what I should do? None of them were monetized. I recently used a karaoke/instrumental version of “Hello” by Adele and changed nearly all the lyrics. I posted it on my FB page and my YouTube page and it ended up getting 70000 views rather quickly. I never expected that so I figured I needed to make sure I’m not breaking the law before it spreads even further. I read that back in the early centuries, parodies were mostly about serious topics and somewhere along the line they became more joking and mocking songs. i hope to finally get a definitive answer about this as so many people enjoyed them. Thank you.

    Ian - January 11, 2016 Reply

    Hi Kimberly

    Apologies – haven’t caught up with comments since Christmas.

    And, I’m afraid I don’t have the definitive answer for you.

    I used to be a UK lawyer and the ‘fair use’ law doesn’t apply here. I know it’s different under US law – and this short article makes good reading –

    What I can say is that under US law it seems that true parody – that mocks the original work – seems to be less likely to be an infringement than satire.

    However, there’s no getting away from the fact that creating a work that is based on someone else’s opens yu up to the possibility of a copyright infringement – even if fair use / parody might be a defence. In the case quoted in the link it seems that the fact that the infringing song was made for profit made the fair use defence unavailable.

    As I’ve said in other replies, the legal advice must be that you could risk being sued for an infringement, but the realm world advice is that putting such things on YouTube and Facebook will almost always be OK and you’re unlikely to ever be held to task. The most likely response from some you have potentially infringed is that you take down the offending song. However, it is at your risk as you could be open to an action.

    Hope that helps to some degree.

Paul - December 26, 2015 Reply

Hi Ian
I’d like to release a 3 track EP of songs I’ve written & performed giving all money raised to charity, the songs are published by Sony who have yet to confirm if they’ll waive their publishing entitlement,
is it unusual for a charity record to pay out to a publisher or are most 100% charitable?
Many thanks

    Ian - January 11, 2016 Reply

    Hi Paul

    Apologies – haven’t caught up with comments since Christmas.

    The answer is that it depends entirely on the publisher/owner of the copyright in the songs.

    They are under no obligation whatsoever to waive their right to mechanical royalties on the charitable version.

    My guess is that if they or the writer (who they’ll usually have to refer back to) get lots of requests they simply might not even reply to those that they think are ‘small fry’ (a common music business methodology in all things!) and will usually waive their entitlement if it’s a big deal and likely to be seen by the poubli on a large scale. In between those two I’d guess it’s 50/50.

    Good luck with it.

Katie - January 21, 2016 Reply

Hi Ian, I am a member of an Andrews Sisters’ tribute group that performs with karaoke tracks that we purchased online. We would like to record and sell CDs. Is there anything else we need to do besides get a mechanical license? Thanks, Katie

    Ian - January 22, 2016 Reply

    Hi Katie

    You will need a mechanical licence – so you’ve got that covered.

    How will you make the recordings?

    If you’re going to use the karaoke tracks you bought you need to check that you can copy and reproduce them. The packaging might say or if they are downloaded tracks you might find terms on the website you bought them from. Do check as you might need a licence.

    If, on the other hand, you are going to make the backing tracks for the recordings yourselves, you won’t need any other licences as you’ll be the original owner of the copyright ion those recordings.

    Hope that helps.


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Pramod - May 6, 2016 Reply

Hi, I am a musician and will be soon releasing my first commercial album in CD format and on digital music sites. I have done a cover version with my own improvisation of the song “Human Nature”. How do I go about getting permission for this ? I live in India. All help will be greatly appreciated.

    Ian - May 6, 2016 Reply

    Hi Pramod

    I’m not sure if there is a central agency for granting mechanical licences in India (like the MCPS here in the UK and Harry Fox in the US) – I can’t find one after a quick Google.

    So, the best bet is to find the publisher of the song you have covered – hopefully they will be listed in the credits – and contact their Indian office and ask for a licence.


Jari - May 11, 2016 Reply

I am doing a cover of a popular song, but I am using an original melody line in the intro. Am I able to claim copyright for the original melody to prevent anyone else using it? I would also like to create another, original track that uses that melody. Naturally, I would consider it a 100% cover still from the publishing perspective. Thanks.

    Ian - May 24, 2016 Reply


    You can only claim a percentage of the copyright in that situation by contacting the original writer or publisher and negotiating a share in the ‘arrangement’ that you’ve created. For most Indie artists this is impractical.

    However, it sounds like using your melody as a basis for a new song should not mean you treat it as a cover of the song that inspired it. Unless it is clearly derivative you should be able to treat a song based on your melody as 100% yours.


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