We can all think of favorite tribute albums or beloved versions of songs by artists who didn't write those songs themselves. How did these artists release those recordings without infringing on the songwriter's copyright? They obtained a mechanical license for every “cover" song before releasing it. Mechanical licenses grant you permission to release audio versions of songs you didn't compose yourself.
When Do You Need a Mechanical License?
You'll need to secure a mechanical license for any cover song you've recorded—a "cover" song is a song you didn't write or originally record yourself.
Whether you're selling physical copies of CDs or releasing digital recordings on streaming platforms, a mechanical license protects you from accusations of copyright infringement. Under copyright law, if someone wants to record someone else's song and is willing to pay for the associated mechanical license, then the songwriter must grant that license.
It's important to remember that a mechanical license only applies to audio recordings of someone else's music. A mechanical license won't apply if you release a video of someone else's song or if you're sampling some of the songwriter's original recording. A mechanical license strictly applies to your own audio recordings of songs written or performed by other people.
How Does It Work and Who Gets Paid?
While you can try to contact copyright holders directly, most people opt for a service that grants mechanical licenses. When it's time to secure your mechanical license, visit one of these services online and answer a series of questions regarding your expected distribution—such as how many streams you think you'll have or how many units you intend to sell. The money you pay for the mechanical license covers the royalty payment to the copyright holder of the song.
How Much Does It Cost?
The cost of a mechanical license depends on your expected distribution and sales. The more units you intend to sell, the higher the fee will be for the license. Based on the numbers you enter, the service provider assigns a fee for the mechanical license. Once they process the fee, you'll have the license and then you're permitted to release your version of the song. You can go online and determine these costs at any time during the process, so if you know what covers you want to perform, you can check out the costs before you head into the studio.
Mechanical Licenses and the Copyright Act
Mechanical licenses are “compulsory" according to the U.S. Copyright Act. That means songwriters are required to grant mechanical licenses (for a fee) to anyone who wishes to record their songs. This part of the Copyright Act intends to promote creativity in music, giving us different interpretations of music while still protecting songwriters and composers.
For a mechanical license to be valid, the performer needs to play/sing the song exactly as it was written. A mechanical license doesn't enable someone to copy bits of the song and create something new—that would be considered a derivative work and would constitute copyright infringement.
What Happens if You Don't Have a Mechanical License?
Performers who release recordings of cover songs without securing mechanical licenses for those songs risk the consequences of copyright infringement. Organizations exist that are dedicated to tracking down people who violate musical copyrights. And if you plan to release your recordings through any of the main streaming facilitators, you'll find that most of those services want the mechanical license information for the covers before they release your recordings on the streaming platforms. While fees vary for mechanical licenses, they are generally low enough that people don't skip this step. You should factor the costs of mechanical licenses into your album project budget and make sure you get them before you release your cover songs into the world.