Posting Cover Songs Legally in 2022
There is a reason why it is smart to do cover songs, whether you are a band or a solo act. Covers drive traffic to your original music. The problem here is you want to do cover songs, but you’ve heard that there are some issues that can happen when you are covering other artist’s copyrighted content. How to avoid all of that? Keep on reading!
Mechanical Licenses. The sweet and simple way to do a cover song is to get what’s called a “mechanical license.” You can get a mechanical license through Easy Song Licensing, or Harry Fox agency. Or, my personal favorite, a lot of music distributors will help you with this process. One music distributor that I release music through is Distrokid. Distrokid will ask, are you doing a cover song? Yes? Would you like us to take care of the mechanical license? Yes? They will then charge you based on having that song distributed and how many years you have it in rotation. This means you are going to pay the fee. It might be something as simple as $5 a month for as long as you have that song out. The way the mechanical license works is that it’s going to give you an automatic license to recreate the song. I want to make sure I’m clear on this because I have a lot of clients who contact my law firm and get confused about this. What we are talking about is when you recreate the song from scratch. You are supposed to re-create the song from its original state, but be careful to not make major changes. For example, keep the lyrics the same, and the integrity of the song structure, as far as verse, pre-chorus and chorus. Other than that, go for it! You get to do whatever you want with your version.
Once you get the mechanical license, know that the mechanical license covers the audio only. The wrinkle here is that the mechanical license does not cover video. If you are doing an audio-visual, it is not covered by the mechanical license.
Sync Licenses. When it comes to doing a cover song video, what you are supposed to do is get a “sync license” to sync your audio to video. To get a sync license, you are supposed to contact the rights holders and negotiate a price. Some common misconceptions that will come up is that a lot of people won‘t want to get the sync license, or they don’t want to do that whole process because it’s too expensive. I’ve been asked: can you just credit the original artist in your description, instead of getting a sync license? No. If anything, it goes to show that you knew who the original author was, you knew you were covering their song, and you knew you were supposed to get a sync license.
Fair Use Exception. Another assumption happens when it comes to something called “fair use.” A very general way to describe fair use is that under copyright law, there are different ways that we can use other people’s copyrighted content, so long as it’s for certain purposes. For example, this website is an educational outlet. Because we are teaching something educational, then our inclusion of copyrighted material falls under fair use. Comparatively, when it comes to doing a cover song, fair use is just a defense. You are usually having to argue it after you’ve gotten something like a copyright strike (discussed more below).
Monitization. Let’s talk about monetization. One of the reasons why people do covers is because they might go viral. Not only might you get a lot of subscribers, but you might get that ad revenue, which is ad monetization on your video. What happens if you don’t turn on monetization? What if you are not actually making money off of the video, is that okay? Again, the answer is no. You are still getting a benefit. You are getting subscribers, exposure, and free marketing. You are supposed to get a sync license, but if you don’t, YouTube has created a loophole by doing deals directly with record labels. In a lot of cases, with big labels owning very popular songs have done deals with YouTube, so that you are either sharing ad revenue with the original rights holder, or the record label is taking all the ad revenue from your videos.
Copyright Strikes. There is always a risk of getting a copyright strike, if you upload a video to YouTube without getting a sync license, or if the song you are covering isn’t pursuant to an existing deal that the record label has with YouTube. This is something I have to emphasize to my artists through my firm. If you get 3 copyright strikes on YouTube, your entire channel can get deleted. It is a big deal, and you have to proceed with caution.
One, make your cover song. Two, before you release it on a Digital Service Provider, (DSP) you’re going to make sure that you get that mechanical license. Next, if you are going to do a visual, you are supposed to get a sync license. If you can’t get that sync license, you want to go on YouTube and see if you can find videos of other people who have uploaded the same song, and see if that video is still up. I think that is an important step to take. Legally, I need to enforce this, you are supposed to get a sync license. Unfortunately, copyright law is old and is taking forever to catch up with the times. YouTube has created this caveat where, so long as this is one of the songs that is pursuant to a deal that it has with a record label, you are going to be okay, and you are not going to get a copyright strike. It is still grey area. That is what I want to emphasis. If you have a big channel and you’ve built a huge audience just know, 3 strikes and you are out. Be cautious when you are doing cover songs.