Cover song licensing UK and mechanical licensing are in place to protect writers, ensuring they receive fair recompense for their work. It doesn’t apply to every piece of music, but for those it does, breaching copyright could land you in legal trouble.
Are you a singer and wondering how to get permission to cover a song? In this article, we’ll provide a general overview of the topic – please note, this should not be considered legal advice.
Cover song licensing UK
As a singer or band, you’ll almost certainly want to sing other people’s songs at some stage, if not all of the time. This is called ‘covering’ and the tracks are referred to as ‘cover’ songs. Here are some of the pros and cons of covering music written by other artists.
- Audiences like familiar tunes they recognise and can sing along to. Covering songs on youtube and at gigs can attract fans who like the artist you’re covering.
- Famous songs are associated with success.
- If a song is good, it’ll be covered a lot. So covers are often already popular.
- You don’t have to write your own music – it doesn’t matter if you’re not a good songwriter.
- Cheap backing tracks are readily available for covers and can quickly be downloaded.
- Many industry jobs require you to cover well-known songs – like wedding singers, care home singers and cruise ship entertainers. A decent cover repertoire will help you get those jobs.
- You have to get permission to sing them in certain circumstances.
- You may have to pay a fee for the licence.
- Many cover songs are overdone and become hackneyed.
- A&R and talent scouts are often more interested in original music than covers.
Many singers have shot to fame through great covers. The right choice of song can make all the difference to your career.
How do I get permission to cover a song?
Now we’ve established that cover songs can help singers to build their audience but it may require licensing in certain situations. So it’s important to know the laws regarding cover songs before you start singing songs written by other artists.
Mechanical license UK
You need a mechanical license from the original writer or publisher to record and release cover songs. A new recording of an existing song requires a cover song license, referred to as a compulsory mechanical license. This means that the owner of the song’s copyright has an obligation to give you a license. However, this is providing the use of the song falls under a certain set of conditions.
In the UK, a mechanical licence is required in order for you to record and distribute physical copies of your cover song too. For example, selling CDs, as well as digital downloads.
Almost all copyright music in the UK will be registered with PRS for Music. This is where you need to go to acquire the mechanical licence for a song. In most audio-only cases (the production of CDs, vinyl etcetera) an AP1 or AP2 mechanical licence will be sufficient.
If the song is not on the PRS for Music database, this does not mean that it isn’t covered by UK copyright law. Instead, you’ll need to seek permission and make arrangements with the original writer or their publisher — depending on who is in possession of the rights.
What is a mechanical license for a cover song?
The rights owner of a song has the right to control who makes the first record. It isn’t compulsory to grant a mechanical license when there is no previous recorded version of a song. There also needs to be a public release of the first recording. Therefore, if a song hasn’t been commercially released as a record then you can’t get a compulsory license.
Another condition is that the license is for a recording only. This means that the license won’t cover music videos or videos of you performing the cover. You also can’t make any major changes to the lyrics or melody but there is an allowance to make your own interpretations of the performance.
Do you have to get permission to cover a song live?
Musicians don’t need a license to cover a song live, it is the responsibility of the venue. Performances in the UK are covered by a venue’s PRS license but cover songs will need their own license. This is done by getting permission from the rights holder and in the UK, this is through MCPS. Copyright is attributed to the original songwriter whenever a song is written or recorded, provided that there is tangible evidence. It costs nothing to cover a song when singing it live.
However, it will cost if you plan on recording the cover version and then offering it for sale on a download website or as part of a physical CD or album product.
Using a cover song in a live performance requires the least licensing procedure because a live performance is not technically a publication. As the musician, you normally won’t need to acquire a licence before you do a live performance of a cover song. Before your gig, check with the venue to ensure that they have a music licence set up in advance; this is a single licence covering them for public performances of almost all copyright music.
Do you need permission to cover a song at TeenStar?
You don’t need to obtain a licence to perform a cover song in music competitions such as Open Mic UK and TeenStar. Instead, it is the responsibility of the venue to make sure that any necessary licences are in place. You don’t need to contact the venue and ask – we take care of this and ensure everything is sorted, so all you have to worry about it preparing and being the best you can be on the day.
TV talent shows will operate on the same basis. If you want to perform a cover on another TV show or radio station, you should check with the producers.
Cover song copyright permission
Copyright law protects the rights of the original artist, to ensure that they receive due recognition and payment for their creative property.
Songs are covered by two separate types of copyright: one for the specific recording, and another which protects the underlying lyrics and musical composition. These two licences might be held by different people or organisations, even for the same song. The copyright for a particular recording is held by the producer of that sound recording (probably a record label), whereas the rights to the underlying song will be in the hands of the songwriter, or their publisher.
How to get permission to cover a song
How you intend to use another musician’s song will dictate whether or not you need a licence and, if you do, what type of licence you need to obtain before you can legitimately cover the song. If you are considering legally recording another artist’s song, here are some steps you should think about first.
- Get the licenses which let you record and release the original composition.
- Get an International Standard Recording Code (ISRC) to distinguish your cover version from anybody else’s.
- Make sure you are set-up to receive performance royalties.
There are two main cover song licensing services which let you apply for a license to record a cover song as a singer.
Songfile: This cover song licensing service offers mechanical licensing information and tools. [Text Wrapping Break]
Distrokid: As well as licensing, you can distribute your covers to Spotify, Apple Music, iTunes and more.
Posting cover songs on YouTube
Many artists don’t realise that sharing a video of a cover song on YouTube, without proper licensing, is in breach of UK copyright law. Previously, this could cause your video to be taken-down and repeat offenders risked losing their account altogether. However, YouTube has recently changed how they operate.
By law, YouTube cannot give you the rights to publish covers of copyrighted songs on their platform. This is always down to the copyright holder(s). Therefore, to find a solution to this, YouTube has made arrangements to compensate the copyright holders and now implements a ‘Content ID system‘ that searches for and recognises videos which contain audio similar to known copyrighted material. For more information, see: How YouTube Content ID Works.
This allows the owner of the copyright to make a judgement based on the content of the new video. In many cases, the copyright holder will choose to place adverts on the YouTube video and collect the associated revenue. That said, the copyright holder could choose to mute or even take down the video — though this is rarer in recent years. This should not be confused with using actual samples of copyrighted music in your videos. Sampling is a completely separate copyright matter. Some original copyright owners are happy to see their songs covered and uploaded to YouTube by new artists. It can help increase the exposure of the original artist’s music, but you must check.
Posting cover songs on Facebook
Uploading video cover songs on Facebook (directly), without the necessary licences (both mechanical and synchronisation), is in breach of their terms and conditions. Therefore, posting cover songs on Facebook could cause your video to be removed and you may risk losing your Facebook page. To date, Facebook does not have a way to compensate the copyright holder(s). As a result, uploading cover songs to Facebook direct to their platform is not tolerated.
Should I embed videos on Facebook?
Facebook favours videos uploaded to their own platform. Videos that are uploaded directly appear to gain more exposure compared to videos embedded from other platforms. However, it is safer to embed the YouTube video on Facebook rather than posting the video of the cover song on Facebook directly. This is providing you’ve already declared the video as a YouTube cover song through the Content ID system.
While live performances of cover songs are the responsibility of the venue and YouTube cover songs will likely be sorted by their Content ID system, most other uses of copyrighted music (such as the use of a cover song on an album) will require a bit more legwork and, to be on the safe side, you should get your cover song licences in place before you start working with any cover material to save yourself the stress of your hard-work being thwarted by music copyright complications later on.
Cover licenses for streaming sites
Distributing recordings of cover songs on sound-only streaming platforms, like Spotify and iTunes will also require a mechanical licence. In order to use these platforms, you agree to comply with their terms and conditions policy. These policies directly forbid the violation of copyright law. Failing to meet these standards could result in your account could be permanently terminated.
If you intend to use copyrighted material as an audio-recording only: CD or digital stream, you’ll need a mechanical licence. However, if you wish to use copyrighted songs in a video, a synchronisation licence is necessary. Cover song licences for the vast majority of music in the UK can be obtained from PRS for Music — and their affiliated organisations — who ensure that original creators receive the royalties.
Always double check if you suspect the song you wish to use is in the public domain; you need to establish who created the work, and when they died. If it had more than one collaborator it will only enter the public domain seventy years after the death of the last original creator. Recreating an existing song in your own style can be great fun and a rewarding career move. However, you always should comply with the proper UK cover song licensing procedure. If in doubt, seek advice from a music lawyer.
- How do you make a song cover on your phone?
Decide whether you want an audio or video recording. For audio, there are lots of great apps with vocal effects and backing (some offer video options too). For video, you can accompany yourself with instruments, musicians or a track.
- Can you make money off a cover song?
Yes, both by performing/recording it yourself or by writing a song that gets covered. Follow the advice in this article and if necessary employ a media lawyer to ensure you’re abiding by all the rules – especially you start making a lot of money. Don’t pretend that you wrote a song you didn’t.
- How long does music copyright last in the UK?
If a piece of music exists in the ‘Public Domain’ you won’t require a licence to use it. This applies to all songs published before 1922, as well as songs whose writer died more than seventy years ago. If the writer is alive or died within 70 years they still have copyright.
Have you come across cover song licensing in the UK? Have you got permission to sing a song? Let us know and post a link to it in the comments below.