Do You Need a Licence to do Cover Songs?

Performing cover songs can help singers to build their audience, experiment with a new style and show their appreciation for the work of fellow musicians. However, before you start covering other artists’ songs, it is important to know the laws regarding cover songs and how they could affect you.

The content in this article is just a general overview of the topic and should not be considered legal advice.

What is a cover song?

When you use a song written by another musician, that has been previously recorded and released, this is known as a ‘cover’.

However, almost every song you can think of, in the charts or otherwise, will be covered by copyright.

Cover song copyright explained

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.

When do you need to obtain a licence?

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.

In the remainder of this article we will cover the varying uses of covers and how copyright law applies to them.

Live performances of cover songs

Using a cover in a live performance requires the least licencing 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.

It is the responsibility of the venue, where your performance will take place, to ensure that they have TheMusicLicence in place; this is a single licence covering them for public performances of almost all copyright music.

You don’t need to obtain a licence to perform a cover song in 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.

TheMusicLicences are controlled and obtained from PPL and PRS for Music, who collect and distribute royalties to the rightful copyright owners.

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The Mechanical Licence: recording and distributing physical copies

A mechanical licence is required in order for you to record and distribute physical copies of your cover song, for example, selling CDs, as well as digital downloads.

In the UK, almost all copyright music will be registered with PRS for Music, which 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 copyright. 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.

Find information about mechanical licencing here: PRS for Music: Retail Audio Products

Can you publish cover songs on streaming websites?

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, which directly forbid the violation of copyright law. If you fail to meet these standards by not having the correct licences in place to release cover material, it could result in your account being permanently terminated.

The Synchronisation Licence: video recordings and posting on YouTube

Many artists don’t know that sharing a video of a cover-song on YouTube, without the proper licence or permission, is in breach of copyright. Doing so will probably cause your video to be taken-down and repeat offences may result in your account being closed completely.

In order to use a cover song in any more than a purely audio context — including a YouTube video — you first need to acquire the synchronisation licence. In the UK, the synchronisation licence for most songs can be purchased from PRS for Music, separately from the mechanical licence.

Find information about synchronisation licensing here: PRS for Music: Using Production Music

In summary

Recreating an existing song in your own style can be great fun and a rewarding career move, as long as you comply with the proper copyright procedure. Get your licences in place before you start working with any cover material to save yourself the stress of your hard-work being thwarted by copyright complications later on.

If you intend to use copyright material as an audio-recording only: CD or digital stream, you’ll need a mechanical licence. However, if you wish to use copyright songs in a video (this includes YouTube) a synchronisation licence is necessary. Both 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.

Don’t be tempted to skip the licencing process, music piracy is a serious offence with potentially severe consequences. Furthermore, song-theft is hugely damaging to genuine musicians’ careers, so as an artist, it’s in your interests to uphold laws set up to protect creative property.


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