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This article is written by Kaushal Kumar, pursuing Diploma in Cyber Law, Fintech Regulations and Technology Contracts offered by Lawsikho as part of his coursework.  Kaushal works as Senior Manager at Genpact.

Someone posts a cover song on YouTube.This happens thousands of times a month. And whether the video is a live band performance or a boy singing from his high chair, most of these cover songs are posted without the song’s copyright holder’s permission – in other words, they violate someone’s copyright.

If the copyright owner complains, YouTube can remove your video. And if you are a repeat offender, your YouTube channel – and all its data – can be permanently deleted. In rare cases, you may even be sued for copyright infringement.

You can obtain licenses to post the music and an accompanying video to avoid problems. This is what you need to know about the copyrights of music and the type of licenses you need.

Copyright Laws for Music

Songs are copyright – creative works are protected. To copyright songs or copyright music, songwriters only need to record their compositions in a tangible way, including on paper, film, tape or digital media. Copyright must not be registered and the work must not include a copyright symbol.

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This means that any recorded song is protected (or once was) by copyright. Its creators – composer and lyricist – hold the original copyright in a musical composition, but songwriters typically transfer their copyrights to a music publisher who helps promote the song to administer royalty payments and enforce copyright.

Song copyright gives its owners a group of rights, including the right to publicly perform the song, produce a song – based derivative work, reproduce the song, distribute copies and publicly display the song. You can’t perform or distribute them legally on YouTube for all other songs unless you get a license.

Cover Song Licensing

Once a musical work has been published, anyone can obtain a mechanical license to record a cover version of the song. When copies or recordings are distributed for sale or rent to the public, a song is “published.”There is no publication of a live performance.

If you pay a royalty fee based on estimated revenue from your cover song, the copyright owner of the song must give you a mechanical license. A mechanical license can be obtained from the Harry Fox Agency or other authorized agency. Harry Fox Agency is a provider of rights management and collector and distributor of mechanical license fees on behalf of music publishers in the United States. HFA has over 48,000 music publishing clients and issues the largest number of licenses for physical and digital formats of music.

The mechanical license only covers your YouTube cover’s audio portion. You will need a synchronization license, also called a “sync” license, to post the video with the song. You must negotiate a copyright holder sync license. Although copyright owners must grant mechanical licenses, they do not have to give you a sync license, nor is there a fixed license fee.

Nearly no one who creates cover song videos jumps through the hoops to secure the appropriate license before posting these videos to YouTube. Are they being prosecuted? Do you have your videos smacked with a notice of copyright infringement or a request for a take-down? Yes, from time to time. But for the most part, no.

Why not? YouTube has developed a monetization system to enable rights holders and content creators to circumvent the usual licensing process for covering song videos. But before we get into that, let’s talk about the license you need to secure if you want to make sure that your cover song video was published by the book, on the up-and-up, and was completely legit and legal.

As discussed above we need a sync license.

Some of the many rights granted to a composition’s publisher are:

  •         the right to decide who can “synchronize” the song with images
  •         the right to determine the circumstances in which the song is “synchronized”
  •         and the right to set monetary compensation conditions

You can pair their composition with moving images in your cover song video by obtaining a sync license (or synch license) from the song publisher.

Note that the owners of sound recordings also have the same rights, but since you make your own version of an existing song, you don’t have to deal with any entity that owns the master recording. You only have to negotiate with the publisher.

What if my song is a slideshow or a single still image? Yes, it’s still considered a video in the eyes of the law – and you still need a sync license.

Since the publisher holds all the cards, they can ignore your application for a sync license. You can be told to go on a hike. They can say, sure you can post our song’s cover video as long as you pay us a billion dollars. Or they can be reasonable and give you permission as long as you meet some realistic criteria and pay them an agreed upfront fee or an ongoing royalty division (or both).

It’s like a lot of work. It’s for most artists, especially YouTubers, who create a new cover song video every week. So this next method of licensing is useful.

The good news is that many music publishers have already agreed with YouTube to use their songs in exchange for a portion of the YouTube ad revenue. You can find out if the song you want to use is already agreed by contacting the music publisher directly.

Consequences of Posting a Cover Song without a License

The copyright holder depends on the consequences of posting a cover song without a music license.

Some copyright owners don’t care about YouTube covers – they increase the exposure of a song and can introduce the music of the songwriters or original performers to a new audience. If fans post songs, a band probably won’t risk alienating them by taking their videos down.

Other copyright owners object to their work’s unlicensed use. A few years ago, Prince famously had YouTube remove a video that showed a toddler dancing to one of his songs.

If the owner of the copyright objects, YouTube may remove your video or negotiate a deal for the owner of the copyright to earn revenue from advertisements on YouTube. If YouTube removes the copyright video, it will also strike your YouTube channel.YouTube will delete your channel, videos, subscribers, likes, views and comments after multiple strikes. It can be devastating if you’ve worked hard to grow your channel.

YouTube cover songs are fun and can give up – and – coming musician’s great exposure. Before you post a cover song, however, it’s important to understand the licenses that you need to do legally. And before you spend a lot of time and money recording your music video, it’s wise to get those licenses.


Students of Lawsikho courses regularly produce writing assignments and work on practical exercises as a part of their coursework and develop themselves in real-life practical skill.                    

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