Indie bands do it to get exposure. Fans do it to display their devotion. Parents do it to show off their cute kids.
Thousands of times a month, someone posts a cover song on YouTube. And whether the video is a live band performance or a toddler singing from her high chair, most of those cover songs are posted without permission from the song’s copyright holder—meaning they’re infringing someone’s copyright.
If the copyright owner complains, YouTube may remove your video. And if you’re a repeat offender, your YouTube channel—and all its data—may be permanently deleted. In rare instances, you might even be sued for copyright infringement.
To avoid problems, you can obtain licenses that allow you to post the music and an accompanying video.
Here’s what you need to know about music copyrights and the type of licenses you need.
Copyright Laws for Music
Songs are creative works that are protected by copyright law. To copyright songs or copyright music, songwriters need only record their compositions in some tangible way, including on paper, film, tape or digital media. The copyright doesn’t have to be registered and the work doesn’t have to include a copyright symbol. That means that any song that’s been recorded is (or once was) protected by copyright.
The copyright in a musical composition is originally held by its creators—the composer and lyricist—but songwriters typically transfer their copyrights to a music publisher who will help promote the song, administer royalty payments and enforce the copyright.
A song copyright gives its owners a group of rights, including the right to publicly perform the song, to make a derivative work based on the song, to reproduce the song, to distribute copies, and to publicly display the song.
All songs published in 1922 or earlier are in the public domain, meaning they are no longer protected by copyright and can be used by anyone. For all other songs, you can’t legally perform or distribute them on YouTube unless you obtain a license.
Cover Song Licensing
Once a musical work has been published, anyone can record a cover version of the song by obtaining a mechanical license. A song is published when copies or recordings are distributed to the public for sale or rent. A live performance is not publication.
The song’s copyright owner must give you a mechanical license if you pay a royalty fee based on estimated revenue from your cover song. You can obtain a mechanical license through the Harry Fox Agency.
The mechanical license only covers the audio portion of your YouTube cover. To post video along with the song, you’ll need a synchronization license, also called a “sync” license. You must negotiate a sync license with the copyright holder. While copyright owners must grant mechanical licenses, they are not required to give you a sync license, nor is there a set fee for the license.
The good news is that many music publishers have already made agreements with YouTube that allow their songs to be used in exchange for a portion of the ad revenue generated on YouTube. You can find out if there is already an agreement in place for the song you want to use by contacting the music publisher directly.
Consequences of Posting a Cover Song Without a License
The consequences of posting a cover song without a music license depend on the copyright holder.
Some copyright owners don’t mind YouTube covers—they increase a song’s exposure and may introduce a new audience to the songwriters’ or original performer’s music. If songs are posted by fans, a band isn’t likely to risk alienating them by taking down their videos.
Other copyright owners object to unlicensed use of their work. A few years ago, Prince famously had YouTube remove a video that showed a toddler dancing to one of his songs.
If a copyright owner objects, YouTube may remove your video or it may negotiate a deal for the copyright owner to obtain revenue from ads that appear on YouTube. If YouTube removes the video for copyright issues, it will also place a strike against your YouTube channel. After multiple strikes, YouTube will delete your channel, along with the videos, subscribers, likes, views and comments. If you’ve worked hard to cultivate your channel, this can be devastating.
YouTube cover songs are fun and can offer great exposure for up-and-coming musicians. But before you post a cover song, it’s important to understand the licenses you’ll need to do it legally. And it’s wise to get those licenses before you spend a lot of time and money recording your music video.