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Cover Songs: What Licenses Are Needed?
Cover Songs: What Licenses Are Needed?
Apprise requires all partners to ensure their clients obtain a Mechanical license before distributing any cover song. However, there are cases when it’s legal to partly distribute cover songs without a license. We will lay out the options and conditions in this article.
What exactly is a Cover song?
A Cover song (or Cover version) is a new recording of an existing song by a musician who is not the original composer or recording artist. A Cover version needs to be a “faithful rendition” (no change in melody, lyrics, and arrangement), and the original song must be distributed or offered to the public by the original artist or their record label before the cover version is recorded.
Important: A cover song can not include any part of the original song’s recording, regardless of the duration. That would make the song a remix or a mashup that requires an additional Master license.
What is a Mechanical license?
The term “mechanical” refers to when songs are mechanically reproduced – in physical formats like Vinyl and CDs, and more relevant to our time – in digital formats like Streaming and downloads. Mechanical royalties come from the composition copyright. Whenever an artist records and releases a cover song (that includes someone else’s musical composition) through their unique sound recording and makes it available to the public for profit, they need to obtain a mechanical license that will secure the payment of the mechanical royalty to the music publisher and songwriter.
Is a Mechanical license always required for a cover song distribution?
Until a few years ago, it was required in all cases. That changed when the Mechanical License Collective (MLC) was formed in the US. The MLC is a non-profit organization that administers blanket mechanical licensing to eligible streaming platforms and pays royalties to all prospective rightsholders. So if all the conditions are met and you follow all the following rules, a mechanical license is not needed:
- The cover version is a “faithful rendition” of the original song, meaning no changes in the melody or lyrics were made (minimal arrangement changes are allowed).
- The cover version does not include any part of the original song’s recording
- The original song was already distributed or offered to the public by the original artist or any record label.
- The original authors of the composition and lyrics and the publisher of the original song are correctly listed and credited in the cover song metadata. You can find the correct information on websites like the Easysong search engine.
- The song is distributed exclusively in the US
- The song is distributed only to the eligible DSPs covered by the MLC
*Please note that the list of eligible DSPs is updated from time. Make sure to check the MLC website – DSP Notices page if the DSP you intend to distribute to is included.
Respectively, if you intend to distribute the song outside the US, distribute the song in Download DSP, distribute physical copies of the song on CD or Vinyl, or make changes in Melody or Lyrics – a Mechanical license is needed.
How can I get a Mechanical license for a cover song?
- Via the record label/ publishing company of the original song. This is the most recommended way, and most big companies have a process for this in place.
- Via collecting societies that handle also mechanical royalties like SACEM and GEMA
Releasing a cover song on YouTube
Since it is an Audiovisual platform, distributing a cover song to YouTube requires a synchronization ‘sync’ license in addition to the mechanical license – even if you upload the song with a static image. Many artists post their cover songs on YouTube without any license. Some are not aware that it’s required, and some are counting on the YouTube CID system to identify the song, notify the rightsholders and let them choose if they want to monetize the song or block it. We do not recommend distributing cover songs to YouTube without a license!
The good news is that many music publishing companies have an agreement with YouTube and have an easy licensing process. It allows their songs to be used in exchange for a portion of the ad revenue generated on YouTube. So the best way to handle this is to find out who’s the publisher of the song in the Easysong search engine and contact them directly to find out if they have an agreement with YouTube.