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

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54 Responses

  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?

    1. Also how would court proceed if i live in Russia? Will they invite me to the USA? And what if I cover a not USA song, everything remains the same?
      Also what about parody? Say I have a medley but change the speed or pitch dramatically, will it be considered like a fair use or not?

    1. 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 🙂

    1. 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

  8. Hi Kurt,
    Great article! Could I get in trouble if I play well known guitar licks to review my guitar amp?

  9. Question about livestreaming and posting. We do a lot of school plays and musicals that we’d like to livestream to make available to grandparents, etc. Like most every high school the plays are usually well known with lyrics to popular songs sung by the students and backing tracks purchased that run in the background. There is no money made on the show from video/livestream, essentially it would just be streamed on the school website for those family members and friends out of town who could not attend.

    What would the exposure be for the school (a non-profit) in this case? Are they and all the kids liable for copyright infringement costs or would the most they risk being asked to take it down if a particular label or owners disliked the version they sung?


      1. The answer is your protected. All education is protected and can not be legally copywrited. Anyone teaching a song that was copywrited can’t be touched. As for your musical again education so you are protected by law. I did.a lot of research on this as i am looking to do covers. Unfortunately I am out of luck and need licenses.

  10. Thanks for this Kurt,

    I am looking at producing guitar tutorial videos for rock riffs/solos.

    If I do not monetise them, am I in the clear?

    1. That’s a good question Ryan. I don’t know offhand but I would think that if they’re not monetized, you should be in the clear

      Kurt Dahl
      Entertainment Lawyer

  11. Hi, my partner and I host music shows on Youtube where we play indie music. Before playing anything, we have the musician verify they own the song (and not just a portion) and that it is an original tune (we get this in writing). We have been running the shows for almost two years. We get requests all the time asking about our playing the songs. We respond that we have permission, and from time to time we furnish the proof (when requested).

    Today we received an email from one of the companies representing some of the bands whose music we have played. While the rep acknowledged and thanked us for providing the permission forms from the artists, we were asked if we possessed a sync license.

    I thought a sync license was needed if I recorded someone else’s song and uploaded it as a cover video to Youtube. We play indie artist music, give the artists free publicity, and include their social media as well as their Spotify, iTunes, etc. links underneath their song or video.

    What am I not understanding? Are we walking in a legal place, or even though our intentions are good, are we breaking the law?

  12. Just try writing and recording your own songs, or your own versions of songs in public domain, and post them on YouTube. You don’t have to worry about copyright infingement unless you sample guitar licks or use tunes and melodies without permission. Do your own stuff. Be creative. Compose. Try being original. Don’t get hung up on composing large numbers of songs. Just start with one or two go for quality, not quantity. Be tough, revise lyrics, change chords, edit, redo, rewrite…that is what music is about. Strive to learn your craft, forget ego, forget about being famous or making money. Just work hard, practice daily, be focused, don’t waste time watching tv, playing video games, or being constantly on social media. These things sap energy, reduce productivity, make you lazy. Prctice your guitar every single day, one hour minimum. Make the time, no excuses. Do it. John J. Flanagan YouTube Songs of Faith. (The Old Gospel Mission, etc)

  13. How about going through We Are The Hits? If I use them to post my videos to You Tube, is there anything else I should do? Thanks so much!


  14. What should I do if someone put my albums on y YouTube without my permission and I produced and copyright all songs?

    1. Contact YouTube and have the albums taken down! They’ll likely take them down if you can show any sort of proof that they’re yours.

      Kurt Dahl
      Entertainment Lawyer

  15. I’m not singing a cover. In a YouTube video I’ve been thinking about making, I wanted to use just 2 lyrics from Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil:

    “Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste.”

    “Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name.”

    I would be singing the lyrics, and the video is not a parody, so it probably doesn’t fall under fair use. Do you think that my video would be pulled off of YouTube if I included these 2 lyrics in it?

  16. My wife does cover song videos etc on YouTube. Some of them are monetized and some of them are not. We are trying to figure out how and why some are monetized and some are not. I was recently told that there is an exhaustive [YouTube] list of music somewhere that outlines which songs can be covered and monetized, which songs can be covered but not monetized, and which songs cannot be used under any circumstances. Does anyone know of this list and where it may be located? I have not been able to come up with anything via Google search etc.

    ~ John

  17. Hi Kurt,

    Interesting and topical article, thanks.
    YouTube has a link on their music library page allowing one to search copyright policy on songs. I recently did a cover video of the guitar solo from Pink Floyd’s ‘Money’. I was allowed to post it, but their management company has the option to insert ads and keep any revenue. Also, a few times I’ve discovered videos can simply be blocked in a large number of countries instead. It’s all up to the owner of the copyright.
    These two examples are songs I want to cover: ‘Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers’ by Jeff Beck, cover or actual, is usable worldwide but ads may appear, whereas ‘Lookin’ Out For Number One’ by Bachman-Turner Overdrive is not available for use and will be blocked or muted if used. Bummer.


    1. hahahahahaha. I think many people on this forum would disagree, that their years of hard work and the blood/sweat/tears that go into creating music is worth something. I agree with them. Good luck to you.

      Kurt Dahl
      Entertainment Lawyer

  18. Hello Kurt,
    I wanted to know, would piano covers of pieces like Yiruma-river flows in you or Philip Wesley-tears of the east still have to follow these policies?

  19. Hello,

    I like to post videos of me recreating all parts of a song, for instance, I’d have 4-5 tracks of a couple guitars, bass, drums. So, all the audio heard in the song is made by me. Is this still violating anything? My recent cover of Layla by Derek and the Dominos was taken down. It says that even performing the same melody is copyright. How do I go about fighting it, in the video, none of the sounds are actually from the recording, they’re all generated by me!

    1. Yes, I would think that you would be okay because it’s for educational purposes, but I’m not a YouTube expert unfortunately. I would try to email someone there and explain further.

      Kurt Dahl
      Entertainment Lawyer

  20. I have a retort to a song, using its melody, with my words that is awesome- (not just my opinion) can I use the melody w/o legal ramifications?

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