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How to Cover a Song Legally – Definite Guide To Laws About Cover Songs

June 02, 2021 • 5 min read

Every artist needs to understand the logic behind music copyright laws in order to keep their work in check. In this sense, learning how to cover a song legally is very. Associating your brand with a classic is a very neat way to position yourself as an artist in the music industry.

Covers make up a traditional way to record music that honors musicians who came before you. Keep reading to further understand how the law works and how you can do it properly.


Understanding music copyright laws

If you want to record a cover, understanding music copyright laws is fundamental. There are a couple different types of royalties that need to be licensed depending on what the music is going to be used for.

Learning how to copyright music may seem very complicated but it’s actually pretty simple. In the US, songs are considered automatically copyrighted from the moment they’re created. Still, artists need to understand how different rules apply to each use so they don’t break any laws.

There are basically four different types of royalties involved in music copyrights: synchronization, print, mechanical and performance.

Synchronization – or just sync, for short – comes about whenever a piece of audiovisual media uses a song in it. This can happen in a movie, TV show or even music videos. Print royalties, on the other hand, need to be licensed for printing sheet music.

But if you plan on including someone else’s song in the setlist of your concerts, you’ll need to obtain a public performance license. With that, you’re allowed to perform it for a crowd. Last but not least, we have mechanical rights. This type of license is necessary to produce copies of a song for distribution. We’ll head into it with more details below.


Mechanical Royalty

As we have mentioned, mechanical royalty encompasses making copies of a record. Those copies can be either physical — printed CDs, LPs and cassette tapes — or digital — distributed through streaming services or available for download.

So, if you are looking into recording a cover to include in your new album, you’ll need to get this license.


Copyright Registration for Musical Compositions

Recording a cover can always raise the question of what is music plagiarism. But, at the end of the day, doing it with the proper accreditation to the composers can settle most legal disputes.

Most questions regarding this can be answered by the US Copyright Office’s Circular 50. The document has been recently revised and sets very clear rules for the whole process. It explains what are the requirements for completing a copyright application, submitting a deposit and registering multiple unpublished musical compositions.


How to choose a song for your cover

close up of a stack of LP covers pilled up. in the middle of the stack, we have The Beatles' 20 greatest hits record

Doing a cover can be a good way to go about with your career. It sets a precedent to your audience on what kind of sound to expect from you. Remaking a classic can be like a shortcut to position you or your band in the industry.

There are a lot of famous covers. From Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” – originally recorded by Dolly Parton – to Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” — originally sung by Leonard Cohen. So, choosing the right song for your brand is essential to introduce yourself to a new audience.


Locating the song owner

First thing you need to do once you have picked out the song you want to cover is locating the owner to its royalties.

Researching copyright’s ownership can be a little tricky since it doesn’t always mean talking to the composers. A lot of songwriters end up signing contracts with publishers so they can administer licensing. Some, may even waive their rights of property to the publisher in their agreement.

In order to locate the song owner, there are a couple resources you can use such as the Copyright Office’s catalog and ISWC’s database.


Public domain music

Another route you can choose to take here is covering a song that already belongs to the public domain. In this case, the music is free for anyone to use either because the composer has wavered their copyrights or because it has been so long that it already expired.

There are a couple different causes for a song to be considered public domain according to the Copyright Act of 1976. The period of time that it takes for a song to be free to use varies between 70 to 95 years, depending on when it was created, published and registered.


Risks of doing it without authorization

At this point, you’re probably wondering if there is any risk in covering a song without proper authorization. What you need to know is that the licensing process here is somewhat mandatory. This means that anyone can record a cover to an existing song and release it in the way they see fit.

Unlike sampling music laws, the rules for doing covers are a lot more relaxed. It happens this way because the composer will get their share of the royalties regardless of who is singing it. The original recording artist, though, can only get performing rights from revenues to their own version.

Should you go for it?

Since authorization for recording a cover song is mandatory, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t go for it. Like we said before, this is a great way to introduce your musical act to a well-established and loyal audience. You just have to make sure to do a great job so not to disappoint the fans.

There is one con to adding a cover to your album. Even though you can record it legally without permission, you’ll need a special license if you plan on expanding it to other mediums. Sync licensing is necessary if you’re looking into how to make a lyric video, for instance.


Join your idols

Doing a cover can be a great way to position yourself in the music industry. By choosing a song already well-acclaimed, you get to set the kind of artist you are. So, make sure to pick a track that suits your style, voice and the image you want to convey to your audience.

What are you waiting for to cover your favorite song? Make your own version and join your idols in the hall of artists singing the classics.

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