I'm here to shed some light on one of the most misunderstood topics in music: copyright laws. I know, you're probably struck with fear and anxiety right now. I'm not going to speak like a lawyer and bore you to death or intimidate you with legal terms. I'm just a regular dude like the rest of us and I don't want to see you get stuck with a lawsuit over a sick cover of your favorite song.
If you play music of any genre, there's a 99% chance you've released a cover song online at some point; that's why this post is going to be relevant to you. I'm going to explain how to legally release a cover song online and how to legally release a cover song on your album. If you're releasing music that you don't own, you need a mechanical license. Allow me to explain:
What is a mechanical license?
A mechanical license is basically a permit to reproduce and distribute music you don't own. This includes cover songs on both physical CDs and online streaming services. The license (and the money you pay for it) will handle the royalties owed to the original artist.
Note: A mechanical license doesn't cover releasing a song with a video. That requires a synchronization license. This doesn't apply to YouTube, though, more on this later.
Why do I need a mechanical license?
Copyright laws exist to ensure someone does not claim someone else's work as their own and they ensure the owner of said work gets paid for when it's used (royalties). If you release a version of someone else's song without obtaining a license, you are not paying them royalties for their work. This is what makes unlicensed cover songs illegal.
How do I get a mechanical license?
Use an online service called Songfile. You'll need to estimate how many plays you'll get online or how many CDs you'll sell. This is the one thing that really sucks about acquiring a mechanical license. It's very difficult to determine how many plays or downloads you're going to receive; the best advice I can give is to overestimate and protect yourself from a lawsuit. Paying for more licensing is still cheaper than paying out a lawsuit. You'll also need to know who wrote the song and often times it's not the performing artist. Do your Google homework to determine this.
How much is this going to cost?
If you use Songfile, it's $16 per track plus whatever the current royalty rate is per download/CD sold is (currently $0.091 under 5mins and $0.0175 for every minute over 5).
If you're looking for more detailed information on obtaining mechanical licenses via Songfile, check out this interview with Harry Fox Agency.
Despite what most artists think, releasing a cover song online for free isn't legal. You might not be making money from the song, but the problem lies in the fact the original artist isn't making money either. This also applies to "bonus tracks" on CDs. If you're releasing it with your name on it, you need a license from the artist's publisher to legally do it.
Because of the sheer amount of cover songs on YouTube, YouTube has made an agreement with most publishing companies to share ad revenue. This means you can now legally upload cover songs to YouTube, but ads will be displayed on your video. You won't be able to monetize your video without a third party (We Are The Hits), but at least you won't get sued. More on this here.
In conclusion, legally releasing a cover song requires navigating some red tape. There are many myths regarding copyright laws being exchanged in the music community and I hope this post sheds some light on them. The last thing I want to see is one of my clients being served a lawsuit over a cover song they're proud of. Be smart about what you release and you won't have any trouble with the law.