How to license cover songs, remixes and samples

What license do I need for a cover song?

A cover is when you re-record a song using your own instrumentation and vocals. Under copyright law, you cannot alter the underlying melody or arrangement of the original version of the song.

Licence required = Mechanical License for US sales

 

What license do I need for a remix?

A remix is when you use any element of the original recording and alter the melody, arrangement, style and genre of the original track.

License required = Master Use License for worldwide distribution

 

What license do I need to use samples?

Made famous by hip-hop DJs such as Grandmaster Flash, and further adopted during the early days of electronic music by acts like The Prodigy; samples are when you take a small element of the original sound recording and loop, tweak or alter it to create an entirely new song.

Licenses required = Master Use + Mechanical Licenses for worldwide distribution

 

How does copyright work in music?

 

Now that we know the differences between covers, remixes and samples, let’s look at some other areas of copyright: 


How does copyright work and what do the copyright symbols mean?

Copyright © - in terms of music, refers to the copyright in the lyrics and melody

Phonographic  - stands for the phonographic copyright, in other words, the copyright in the sound recording.
 

The owners of these copyrights is dependent on who commissioned the work. If you’re an independent artist, aka not signed to a label, then you own all the above copyrights. If you are signed, often these are owned by the publishers or labels, depending on how the deal is carved out.

 

How does copyright work in music?

 

Now that we know the differences between covers, remixes and samples, let’s look at some other areas of copyright: 


How does copyright work and what do the copyright symbols mean?

Copyright © - in terms of music, refers to the copyright in the lyrics and melody

Phonographic  - stands for the phonographic copyright, in other words, the copyright in the sound recording.
 

The owners of these copyrights is dependent on who commissioned the work. If you’re an independent artist, aka not signed to a label, then you own all the above copyrights. If you are signed, often these are owned by the publishers or labels, depending on how the deal is carved out.

 


How do I register my own copyright?

That depends entirely on where in the world you live. In countries like Australia and the UK, copyright is automatically created when the work is, so long as you can prove you created the work, you’re all good to go. However, in the US, it is recommended that you register your copyright with the US Copyright Office. For other countries, it’s best that you do a Google search for your local copyright laws, to ensure you understand your rights as an artist or label.

 


How do I release a cover of someone else’s work?

Firstly, it’s important to note you only need to purchase licenses if you’re distributing your cover in the US. This is because they do not have a royalty collection agency that deals with mechanical royalties (the name given to artists’ music that has been reproduced digitally, physically (CDs/Vinyl) etc.) such as AMCOS in Australia, or the MCPS in the UK. So, you only need mechanical licenses for covers distributed to the US.

 


How do I ensure that I have done everything correctly under copyright law?

In order to ensure everything is above board and you are protected from any potential legal action from copyright holders, follow these important steps…
 

a) Identify the original songwriter, publisher or label aka the owner of the copyright. To do this, search on the various copyright databases such as BMI, ASCAP, SESAC, US Copyright Office or Harry Fox. It’s worth noting that in most instances (well, for signed artists), the copyright owner is the publisher. Labels rarely own the copyright in the composition, but usually own the copyright in the sound recording, so make sure you get the publisher name, not the label.

b) Be sure to ascertain the correct version of the song you are releasing, as there are hundreds of songs called ‘Fantasy’, ‘Alive’, ‘Lies’ etc.

c) Send a letter of intent. This can be a tiring exercise, but thankfully, most companies that you purchase licenses from do this when you purchase the licenses. Just be sure to purchase the licenses at least 30 days before the release date of your cover/s. 

Where can I purchase music licenses?

There are several different companies that can help with this. Two worth mentioning are Songfile (Harry Fox) and Easy Song Licensing. Each one will offer different services and options, so pick the one that’s applicable to your particular release.

Singfile: http://www.songfile.com

Licensing: http://www.easysonglicensing.com

Please note, purchasing licenses after the cover has already been released, makes the licenses invalid. However, it is better than not having it at all and may safeguard you legally if copyright holders come knocking at your door.

 Common Q&A:

Q&A: Can I use the cover songs for commercial use after I purchase licenses? sale it on iTunes and other places?

Yes, as long as you have the correct licenses you can release cover songs to iTunes, Spotify etc. For cover songs, you'll only need to purchase a Mechanical License for North America sales.

Q&A: If I purchase this Mechanical License, Will I have full rights to Monetize my video on YouTube?

You'll also need to obtain a Synchronization License to post a video of your cover song on YouTube. This is a different license which allows you to “sync” a certain piece of music with other visuals, for example, in a music video or live performance video.

Q&A:  I've done a cover of a song, using my own instrumental production, got a vocalist to re-sing the words & changed the genre. Is it a Mechanical License I need. I'm based in the U.K.

Yes, you'll need a mechanical license for digital downloads. You mention that you've changed the genre, but as long as you haven't changing the underlying melody of the song, that'll be enough.

Q&A:  What license do you use when you alter the underlying melody or arrangement of the original version of the song but not using samples of it?

This sounds like you'll need a Master Use License. 

Q&A: How do I grant a licence for an original copyright not previously released to an Artist/Management. Is there a form available?

You'll need a contract for this, either a master use agreement or some sort of distribution agreement, depending on the circumstances.

C/O Licensing Music Attorney