Did you steal a song by covering it?

Did your band record a cover song on your last album? If so, did you steal that song when you covered it? You may have if you didn’t follow the proper copyright laws.

Did you know you are required to pay the songwriters royalties every time you sell a copy of your cover song? This includes CDs, vinyl albums, downloads, etc. A lot of indie bands record cover songs for their albums without ever considering this. They feel that the artist that wrote the song won’t waste their time coming after a small indie band. But what happens if that cover song starts selling a lot of copies? Also, what if you found out some other artist was making money off a song you wrote without cutting you in on your share? Let’s remember Karma is a bitch and to do things the right way from the beginning. It is not as hard as you would think.

Let’s talk a little about copyrights

Copyrighting your own music is a topic for another day, but you should understand the basics when it comes to cover songs. A copyright for a song gives the songwriters certain rights to protect them against others stealing or misusing their song. You know it can take a lot of work to write that hit song. Copyrights make things official in the eyes of the law and make it so songwriters can get paid when their song is used.

If music or lyrics are under copyright protection:

  • you CANNOT reproduce the music or lyrics
  • you CANNOT distribute the music or lyrics either for free, for no profit, or for profit
  • you CANNOT perform the music or lyrics in public
  • you CANNOT play a recording of the music or lyrics in public–even if you own the CD
  • you CANNOT make a derivative work or arrangement for public use in any form.

First off, you need permission from the artist to even use the song if it isn’t publicly released already. If it is released publicly then you are allowed to cover it. You would still need to acquire a mechanical license in order to release a recorded version of a cover song. It is best to start there before you waste any time or money recording a cover version. Use services like CDBaby, LOUDR (Spotify acquired them and killed this service), or easysonglicensing.com to get things taken care of.

You are required to pay 9.1 cents per download to the songwriters. Estimate how many downloads you will get in a year and pay that amount up front when you use the above services. You will also pay a service fee for use of the service. All in all, the fees paid is very low. There is no reason not to do things the proper way. For example: using LOUDR to release a cover that will download 1000 times will cost you $91 (royalties) + $15 (service fee) for a grand total of $106. If you sold a download for $1 a piece then you still are left with $894.

If you want to dive onto copyrights a little more, then check out: https://copyrightalliance.org/ca_faq_post/get-copyright-permission/

Performing a cover live

When a song has been released publicly then you can legally perform it as a cover in your live set. Odds are you are covering a song because it is popular, so you can be sure that it falls into the legal realm of being publicly released. When I perform a cover song in a live set, I report it to my PRO so that the songwriters get credit for their song being performed. That way, the songwriters get their share of the live performance royalties.

According to Sue Basko, a lawyer for music, film, and media, it is the venue’s responsibility to obtain the license for your band to perform other artists’ music. A proper music venue will pay a fee to PROs like ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC in order to host live music. This, in turn, covers that legal obligation for your band to perform that cover song.

What about public domain songs?

Public domain songs are songs that you are free to use without asking first. Put simply, the public domain consists of works that aren’t protected by copyright or by other legal means.

You are free to use public domain works however you wish, without seeking permission, because …

  • their copyrights have expired; or
  • the copyright owner didn’t follow certain required formalities (so they didn’t get a valid copyright); or
  • the works weren’t eligible for copyright in the first place; or
  • their creators dedicated them to the public domain.

https://www.pdinfo.com/ for more information about public domain songs.

Recording a public domain song still means that you can list it with your PRO as one of your songs. You can take credit for the arrangement of a public domain song. Your recording of the song is basically your version or arrangement and makes it uniquely your own. Basically, you get to take credit as a writer at this point. You can give credit to the real writer, but if it is public domain then legally the original writer has no claim to the royalties.


I wanted to include an update about streaming. Here is a quote I found on Ari’s Take about the subject:

Spotify ALREADY PAYS mechanical royalties directly to HFA (and then HFA pays publishers) so you’d be double paying. Rdio already pays mechanical royalties directly to Music Reports Inc (and MRI pays publishers). And international collections agencies grab the mechanical royalties from international streaming services like Deezer and pay publishers directly.

So you can safely release a cover to these streaming platforms without first acquiring a mechanical license. That makes it super easy for you to release covers if you just stick to these streaming platforms.

Cover songs can be a huge benefit for your band.

They have a way to put your music in front of new audiences and show your love for a certain song or artist. Just be sure to approach them in a way that is respectful to the original artist and follow the laws. You would hope another artist would follow these rules if they wanted to cover your songs, so lead by example.

Don’t forget to grab a FREE copy of my e-book. It contains more great tips like this for the indie musician.

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