3 Rules to Release Cover Songs Without Getting Sued

Recently, my band recorded our version of Shawn Mendes’ mega-hit, Treat You Better. To go along with the single, we released a music video of us tracking the song in the studio on YouTube and Facebook. Our fans were stoked on the final product, and we felt great about the way it turned out. It was full steam ahead with the marketing of the track. Except for one thing...

One week and 30,000 Facebook views later, Universal came knocking, issued a takedown notice, and had the video pulled from Facebook.

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Given that opener, you might not believe me when I say that if you want to increase the ears on your music, releasing covers from time to time is a great way to do it. But hear me out. You're going to expand your reach organically on sites like Spotify and YouTube by default, AND they’re fun as hell to do! But it’s not as seamless as releasing your own tracks.

Here’s 3 rules you need to know to make sure you’re not getting the wrong kind of attention from Universal (and others like them) when releasing cover songs.

Rule 1: Get a mechanical license

In order to legally release cover songs, you need to get a mechanical license. It’s not foolproof (because I did it for Treat You Better, and look what happened!), but it’s still important.

What is a mechanical license?

Essentially, a mechanical license grants you the rights to reproduce and distribute copyrighted songs (musical compositions). If you’re planning on recording and releasing music that you don’t have rights to, you’ll want to make sure you take care of this since it’s required by the U.S. Copyright Act. Don’t worry about your request being denied, either. Under section 115 of the Copyright Act, anyone can record a song that’s already been released by another artist regardless of having their permission or not. This is referred to as a compulsory license, and as long as a notice is served that you’re covering their copyrighted work, you’re golden.

How do I get a mechanical license, and what are the costs?

There are a handful of sites you can get a mechanical license from. Harry Fox Agency, Easy Song Licensing, and Songfile are a few examples. I've used TuneLicensing in the past and found it really easy to use. Once you sign up and submit basic info about your release (artist and release title, release date, UPC, etc), these services will track down the copyright owners, send them a notice, and then pay them their mechanical royalties on your behalf.

There are two fees associated with licensing songs. The first is the fee you pay to whichever service you use, which will vary, but in general is roughly $15 - $50 depending on the type of license you decide to buy. Some services will offer a “limited license” if you think you will sell a specific amount of copies. If you think you will sell more, they offer a “standard license.”

The second fee is the mechanical publishing royalties that you are required under law to pay out to the original copyright owners, which is currently 9.1¢ for recordings up to 5 minutes. For recordings over 5 minutes it would be an additional 1.75¢ per minute.

Just thinking about trying to do this math in order to pay all the necessary royalties makes my brain cry, so it’s worth it to have the companies above handle this on your behalf.

Rule 2: Get a sync license (...or don’t?)

Here’s where it starts to get interesting (or really confusing)...

In order to legally release your cover in video format, you need to get a mechanical license AND a sync license. A sync license allows you to use the composition in a visual format (i.e., a video). The only way to obtain a sync license is directly from the original copyright owner, and the fee can vary. Even if you were able to track down the copyright owners and publishers, most would never respond to a request. So technically, the majority of all cover song videos on YouTube are illegal because we all know most budding YouTube stars are not locking in sync licenses before they hit “upload.”

But because of Content ID, YouTube’s little sync-licensing workaround, most publishers let this slide. Content ID will analyze videos uploaded to the platform and determine if they contain copyrighted material. As long as the original owner has their music uploaded to the system, YouTube will place a claim on that video so the original owner can monetize it from the ad revenue generated.

There is always the potential that a takedown notice could happen against your cover video if you don't get a sync license. But the chances of that happening these days are rare. Most publishers and rights holders have accepted the fact that as soon as your music is released into the world, it’s going to end up on YouTube, whether or not they want it there.

Rule 3: Get familiar with Facebook’s own rules

Uploading a cover song to Facebook is a different story. In April 2018, Facebook struck a deal with Universal Music Group and become the first major music company to license its recorded music and publishing catalogs for video and other social experiences across Facebook and Instagram. However, there hasn’t been word on their own version of Content ID. So if you upload a video of your cover song to Facebook, there's still a good chance it could get pulled down if the music isn't licensed by UMG. Remember, that’s exactly what happened to us! We learned that lesson the hard way so you don’t have to.

The moral of our story….

As long as you obtain a mechanical license for cover songs you plan to distribute, that’s 90% of the battle and all you need to do. If you are uploading your cover to YouTube, you should be fine as long as you realize you won’t be able to make ad revenue from it. But learn from my mistake and keep your cover song videos off of Facebook for the short term.

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