How to Legally Post Cover Songs to YouTube

cover songs youtube

YouTube is full of cover songs. From indie artists to toddlers to superstars, some of the most viewed videos on the Internet happen to be of cover songs. In the past week, I’ve been listening to and watching a ton of cover songs of the man himself, Leonard Cohen.

[Fun fact: both Cohen’s and Jeff Buckley’s recordings of ‘Hallelujah’ were flops upon their release. In fact, Cohen’s record label didn’t initially release the song in North America. The composition did not gain widespread attention until after Buckley’s death in 1997. Over the course of several decades, a prolonged snowball effect has made the song one of the most loved, most covered, most misunderstood songs of the modern era. What a story.]

Cover Songs Launching Careers?

It just so happens that some of the biggest artists of the modern era got their start with YouTube covers (instead of touring the cold ass Canadian prairies for ten years, ha!). Justin Bieber and Walk off the Earth, for example, might not have a career without the exposure received from their cover songs. The former was discovered by manager Scooter Braun after his covers of Usher and Justin Timberlake went viral when he was only twelve years old. The latter’s five-people-one-guitar cover of Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” went viral before the original did and arguably sparked further interest in the original, accumulating nearly 50 million views in its first month of release. As of the writing of this article, the cover has 175 million views, the original 825 million views. The band then parlayed their sudden success into a major label deal with Columbia Records.

The irony is that most of these cover songs are posted without the permission of the song’s copyright holder. In other words, they’re posted illegally.

YouTube Cracking Down

In recent months, cover songs on YouTube have become a heated topic in the music business. Record labels and publishing companies have started to aggressively enforce their copyrights. This has led to an increase in video take-downs and in some cases, lawsuits.

So: how do you post cover songs to YouTube legally?

cover songs youtube

To find the answer, we must understand the two main copyrights in a song: one in the composition (lyrics and music), and one in the sound recording. Read more on the topic here.

Obtaining a Mechanical License

When someone records and releases a song, you are free to do your own cover version of that song by obtaining a mechanical license. Contact CMRRA in Canada and the Harry Fox Agency in the USA for more info. Then every time your cover song is sold or reproduced, you (or your record label) must pay the statutory royalty fee for that song. That rate is currently 9.1¢ per copy in the US and 8.3¢ per copy in Canada.

But a mechanical license is not enough.

The original artist holds certain rights in the song under copyright law, including the exclusive right to reproduce, to prepare derivative works, to distribute copies, to publicly perform, and to publicly display the work. The mechanical license covers reproduction and distribution. It does not cover public performance and display.

Obtaining a Synch License

Therefore, you need a synch license as well as a mechanical license to legally publish cover songs on YouTube (unless the song has fallen into public domain).

cover songs youtube

How do you obtain a synch license? It’s not always easy. One option is contacting the copyright owner (often the artist’s publishing company) and negotiating a reasonable rate for the synch license.

Another option, which is likely easier: YouTube has deals with many record and publishing companies through its Content ID Program. Under this program, at the copyright owner’s sole discretion, YouTube may monetize your video with advertisements rather than take it down. The copyright owner then gets a share of the profits. When a video of yours is found to be in copyright violation, the copyright owner can decide whether the video should be monetized or removed. You would then receive notification of their decision.

Consequences of Non-Compliance

If you fail to obtain permission, will you be sued? Not likely. These types of disputes only go to court in extreme cases. Most times, the worst case scenario is that your video will be pulled by YouTube. You might receive a copyright notice from the owner or publisher.

However, watch out for YouTube’s “three strikes” policy. According to their terms of use, if you receive three strikes or takedowns, your account will be terminated. This means that all of your videos will be removed and you will be permanently blocked from creating new accounts or accessing YouTube’s community features in the future. Yikes.

My Advice

My suggestion: do your research. If you want to avoid getting permanently banned from YouTube, look into what songs are covered in YouTube’s 2012 agreement with the National Music Publishers Association (NMPA) and the Harry Fox Agency (HFA). Try to reach out to the song’s owner. And just like in baseball, when you’ve got two strikes, make your next decision wisely.

Oh, and if you’re doing a cover, try to make it as good as Buckley’s.

Cover songs

26 thoughts on “How to Legally Post Cover Songs to YouTube

  1. Hi Kurt,

    But if I am new to youtube and just want to record myself singing cover songs for fun do I even need any licence? And maybe monetize them if I ever even become successful…

  2. Nice article, but it looks like I won`t mess with video covers. With audio covers it`s easy, I could use Distrokid or Loudr for that, they get the license with additional fee, but who will buy audio tracks without promoting them via say Youtube? It`s frustrating to see lots of people making a solid living on Youtube covers that don`t buy a sync license and the fact that they aren`t get sued. And it seems like obtaining the sync license is a pain plus it may cost any sum of money the owner would want. Can I know before uploading whether my video would be monetized in agremment with copyright owner or not? Or if they sue me, can they demand an enormous sum of money if I get a little? And what if I delete my video after getting sued? There would be no evidence of my violating?

    • Good question. I believe it goes to the owner of the master and owner of the composition, so if you own the cover master, you are entitled to something. I admit that I’m not an expert on how these YouTube revenues end up playing out, but some of my record label clients would be. I can follow up if you’d like.


      Kurt Dahl
      Entertainment Lawyer

  3. So, if I am just posting a video of myself singing and playing the song, and I don’t claim rights to the song, do I still need a license? It seems kind of like overkill…. Ay, there’s so many rules in the real world.

  4. ok, what if i recorded a cover and left the screen blank or just a still image? does it apply to the music only or the music and video together? still need a licence? and does this mean that every single cover on youtube has a licence to be posted? Thank you 🙂

    • I think the same principles would apply regardless of the video. Again, they can only be taken down at the option of the writer/publisher, but many aren’t.


      Kurt Dahl
      Entertainment Lawyer

  5. Hello Kurt ^^

    Do these rules apply for covering parts of a song? For example, If I wanted to sing the chorus or intro of a song for a small animation project.
    And then- is editing a track to omit the vocals (To sort of turn the track into a ‘karaoke’ version of itself) something to be cautious about?

    Thanks so much for your help 🙂


  6. Would the person covering the song need to go through all of that if they aren’t selling it at all? if it is up there simply just for exposure?

  7. Hey Kurt, great article. I have written a jukebox musical using a well known bands music. It could make zillions if it fills the space vacated by Mamma Mia and We Will Rock You. I have a 5 minute promotional video that is designed to go viral and wake up dead head publishers and production companies….. but I am scared to post it because of copyright issues. Any chance we could chat to work out a mechanism for getting it into the public social media space? Of course, my 100% copyright on the show is designed to be shared by future partners and that includes a slice for you if you can help. I would be happy to send you the mpeg to show you it’s potential. Thanks in advance

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