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?
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).
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.
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.