How To Cover Your Legal Bases With YouTube Covers

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Lawyer Showing The Lawsuit Document

Performing a YouTube cover is a great way to get exposure for an artist, but not following these music copyright requirements may land you in legal trouble.

So, you’re an independent artist who thinks you have a great idea for a song cover. Great! Read this first.

Why Should You Record Cover Songs?

Cover songs are nearly as old as the recording industry itself. Early Rock n’ Roll, Pop and Jazz artists built their reputations and made their names on their interpretations of standards, traditional and songs originally written and recorded by other artists. The 21st Century offers many benefits for covering songs, especially thanks to the prevalence of YouTube. 

Cover songs can be a launchpad for an independent artist’s career and popularity. Interpreting and arranging a popular song in your own style is a great way to introduce audiences to your music by introducing your sound to them in a way that’s also familiar and enticing to them.

Covers also benefit the original recording artist by providing fresh avenues of exposure. Contemporary artists covering classic songs can bring the original artist new fans. Genre-swapped covers introduce audiences that may otherwise have never heard the original artist’s songs or given them the time of day. Viral YouTube cover videos have also been known to play a part in launching the popularity of the original song and artist(s) into the stratosphere.

But before you jump on the YouTube covered bandwagon, you should be aware that there are possible legal complications that might arise from your prospective viral video. Namely, the matter of licensing. 

How Do You Cover A Song Legally?

To cover a song legally you need two kinds of licenses:

1. Mechanical License

Mechanical licenses allow you to distribute a copyrighted song in audio-only format. They’re fairly easy and inexpensive to obtain through compulsory licensing. Through agencies such as EasyListening and The Harry Fox Agency mechanical licenses can be obtained online. In the rare instance that these agencies cannot provide a licence for a given song, you can still obtain a mechanical license by complying with Section 115 of the Copyright Act.

2. Synchronization Licence

Synchronization licenses (or “sync licenses”) are required for syncing any video to copyrighted music and are not quite as easy to obtain because you have to deal with the copyright holder directly. The copyright holder has greater discretion in negotiating the price of the license and can deny it as well.

What Licence Do You Need For A YouTube Cover?

Yup, you guessed it. The no-so-easy-to-obtain sync license. Even a simple video of you strumming a guitar in front of your computer technically needs a synchronization license or risks infringing on the artist’s legal rights and running afoul of their lawyers.

But, don’t give up just yet!

As I’ve noted in the “Why… section above, most artists recognize the symbiotic nature of the cover-ecosystem and how it benefits them to allow people to cover their music and post it online. Additionally, due to the growth of the cover ecosystem on YouTube, as well as in tacit recognition of the role that these sort of performance videos have played in the growth of the popularity of YouTube, the platform has taken steps to sustain it and help protect the videos uploaded by creators.

Your first step in navigating this should be to check out YouTube’s Creator Academy page on copyrights as well as its database on copyright policies set by copyright holders.

In a nutshell, here is what your position is: YouTube’s Content ID system identifies if there is copyrighted content in your video. This gives the copyright holder the option of placing ads and obtaining revenue from your video. Generally speaking, this is the end of the matter. Said video will remain up on the site while diverting any earnings from it to the copyright holder. This benefits everyone involved. You, as the cover artist, continue to get to have people hear and see your performance when they stumble upon it during youtube binges, and the copyright holder benefits monetarily from your video remaining online. You might even be able to share in the revenue of that video. Everybody wins.

However, this is almost entirely left to the discretion of the copyright holder. While they may generally be willing to allow covers of their material, it is not always the case. Some artists are more zealous when it comes to taking down covers and this will result in a copyright strike. 

When Should You Get A Sync License?

The fundamental truth is that if you want to be absolutely sure that you are completely protected from copyright infringement claims you should get a sync license for your cover. The end.

…or maybe not. The pragmatic approach is to weigh your options. Check out YouTube’s copyright policies for the artist or copyright holder of the song you want to cover. If it’s fairly free and opens then the risk of you getting a copyright strike is negligibly low. YouTube’s appeal system also allows you to rectify any problems you might have with specific content or videos without jeopardizing your entire channel. When it comes to covers this is a fairly low risk / high reward scenario.

However, if you’re planning on pouring a significant amount of time, money, and effort into recording a cover and a video then it might make a lot more sense to cover all your bases and take the time and effort to get that sync license to ensure that you see some return on investment and prevent all of your effort and resources going to waste if the video is taken down and your channel put in jeopardy.

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