Do You Need a Licence to do Cover Songs?

In this article we answer the question: “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 songs by other artists, it is important to know the laws regarding cover songs and how they could affect you – here’s the short answer:

Musicians don’t need a license to cover a song live, it is the responsibility of the venue. However, you do need a license to do cover songs if you are going to record and distribute physical copies of the music, seeking permission from the original writer or publisher.

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

Jump to answer:

What is a cover song?

When you perform 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 law in the UK

Is covering a song, without first obtaining a licence, copyright infringement?

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.

Music Copyright UK

How to register your music copyright UK online Music Copyright UK: Music copyright UK serves to prove authorship of artistic and creative works and gives the author(s) exclusive rights to that work. UK music copyright of a song exists naturally whenever your creative thoughts are captured in a tangible and fixed format (e.g. written down, sketched,... Read more »

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 for a cover song?

So, do you need a licence to do cover songs? 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 cover songs and how copyright law applies to them.

Live performances of cover songs in the UK

Using a cover song 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 set up in advance; this is a single licence covering them for public performances of almost all copyright music.

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

In the UK, 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.

Almost all copyright music, in the UK, 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 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.

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.

Posting cover songs on YouTube and Facebook

Can I upload cover songs to YouTube?

Quick answer: You can, but there are some risks to posting cover songs on YouTube.

Many artists don’t know that sharing a video of a cover-song on YouTube, without the proper cover song licence or permission, is in breach of UK copyright law and, in the not-so distant past, doing so 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 as this is 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 more rare in recent years.

This should not be confused with using actual samples of copyrighted music in your videos, which is a completely separate matter.

Can I upload cover songs to Facebook?

Quick answer: Don’t post 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.

Although Facebook appears to favour videos uploaded to their own platform: videos that are uploaded directly appear to gain more exposure than videos embedded from other video platforms. If you have already posted your cover song on YouTube and have, through the Content ID system, declared the video as a YouTube cover song, it is safer to embed the YouTube video on Facebook rather than posting the video of the cover song on Facebook directly.

how to do a cover of a song on youtube

Music in the public domain

If you’re lucky, the song you wish to cover will exist in the Public Domain, and therefore, 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 (although, this rule only applies to music written since 1989).

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. Bear in mind a song might have more than one creator, and it will only enter the public domain seventy years after the death of the last original creator.

How to legally cover a song in the UK

As long as you comply with the proper UK cover song licencing procedure, recreating an existing song in your own style can be great fun and a rewarding career move.

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 (see above: Can I upload cover songs on YouTube?), 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.

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.

Do you share cover songs on YouTube? What are your experiences? Has posting cover songs on YouTube benefited your career? Let us know in the comments below.


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