How to Release a Cover Song (Legally)

How to Release a Cover Song (Legally)

Putting a cover song on your album, releasing it as a single, and/or making it into a music video

by Lorena Kelly

September 17, 2020 in Songwriting & Copyright

Disclaimer: Navigating copyrights for covers can be very complicated. This is a simple article intended to cover some of the basics that apply a good deal of the time for Canadian artists, but always consult with a lawyer or do further research if you have a more involved situation to navigate. Be aware that copyright laws vary from country to country so always look for information intended for Canadians and refer to information that is current. This article isn’t intended to provide ‘legal advice.’


Covers can be a great way to build or supplement your presence as an artist, whether you’re emerging or established (think Walk off the Earth covering Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know, or Lenny Kravitz’s cover of The Guess Who’s “American Woman”). They can be used to supplement releases between your original song releases to keep fans happy. They can be for something fun, because you just love the song, or for a holiday release. Or they can be the basis of entire careers, as for tribute/cover bands.

What is a cover song?

A cover song is one that you yourself did not write but which you want to record or perform. If you are not the copyright owner of the song, you do not have the right to ‘make a copy’ of it (ie record an audio version, or make a video of it). For this you will need to obtain permission from the copyright owner(s). The copyright owner(s) is the songwriter(s), but also may include record labels and/or publishers, if the songwriter has allocated part of their copyrights to these. For major label releases, there may be numerous copyright owners involved (and sometimes, a different publisher for each songwriter as well) who all have to grant permission for a cover song to be legally released.

ie Blackbird by The Beatles: writers John Lennon, Paul McCartney; publisher SONY/ATV Tunes LLC

ie Can't Feel My Face by The Weeknd: writers Savan Harish Kotecha, Ali Payami, Martin Karl Sandberg, Peter Anders Svensson, Abel Tesfaye; publishers Warner Chappell Music Scand AB, Wolf Cousins, MXM Music AB, BMG Gold Songs, KMR Music Royalties II SCSP

You should always be sure that you have cleared permissions before investing money into recording an audio track or making a video of a cover song. If you don’t receive written permission, you could potentially be paying money to work on a project that you then cannot legally release.

Note: Making alterations to an existing song does not change its copyright owner. You cannot simply rewrite/add to the lyrics, change chords, or make other changes for the purposes of claiming part ownership of a song. Nor does changing the genre or other aspects of the musical presentation change the copyright owner. (The exception being works of parody/comedy – a la Weird Al - which we won’t get into in this article. And in some cases, new arrangements of traditional/public domain songs, such as “Silent Night”.)

How do I get permission to release a cover song?

Physical - CDs/vinyl etc: You will need to obtain a mechanical license. (Mechanical = physical copy.) For Canadians your first step is to search for the song in the CMRRA database. If the song you are looking to cover is listed and has its publisher ‘represented,’ it will be an easy process to obtain a mechanical through the CMRRA. The minimum cost you’ll pay (for the minimum of 500 units and song length of 5 minutes or less recorded time) is about $56 including fees and taxes. The mechanical license fees are statutory rates set by the Canadian government. Tip: Be sure you have the title spelled correctly or your search may return no results; and know who the songwriters are if there are multiple different songs with the same name so that you’re licensing the correct one.

You can do this through a Pay-as-You-Press license.

If you cannot find the song in the CMRRA database or if it says ‘not represented,’ you can alternately try looking it up on the U.S. website Canadians can register for a free account and then go to the Songfile search. Be advised that Harry Fox only licenses for U.S. releases but this can be another avenue to try to locate the songwriters/publshers.

You would then have to contact the publisher(s) directly for permission, which can be a very long arduous process and can potentially delay a physical product release by months or more. The rate per unit is still the statutory rate, but sometimes the publisher is only willing to issue a mechanical license for a much higher number of units (a higher dollar minimum) so that it’s worth their time/effort to do the paperwork. A separate form of permission is also needed if you wish to publish the lyrics - for example, in a book.

YouTube: YouTube itself notes, “Cover your covers. If you perform a cover song, make sure you have permission from the copyright owners (i.e., songwriter and/or music publisher). You may need additional licenses to reproduce the original sound recording, include the song in a video, or display the lyrics. Learn more about covers here.” Generally speaking, however, the YouTube process has become much easier in recent years, as the company now has direct agreements with major labels, publishers and song providers such as CD Baby. The easy way to check if your cover will be allowed by YouTube is to look for another cover version existing.

For example on a cover version of Taylor Swift's Anti-Hero, under the description you will see:

LICENCES:[Merlin] AudioSalad (on behalf of Tristar Records Limited); LatinAutorPerf, UNIAO BRASILEIRA DE EDITORAS DE MUSICA - UBEM, LatinAutor - UMPG, Sony Music Publishing, LatinAutor - SonyATV, UMPG Publishing, BMI - Broadcast Music Inc., and 2 music rights societies

This essentially means that YouTube has agreements with the copyright owners of the song and the cover artist is allowed to upload the song, with a portion (or all) of the earnings from that video going to the copyright owners (how much, depends on the agreement YouTube has with that copyright owner). If no other cover version exists yet you could record a simple demo version and try to upload it - but don't fully publish it. During the upload process YouTube will scan its system and see if an agreement for the song exists and let you know if you can use the song or not, and under what conditions. If no info comes up or a copyright violation pops up, you know you need to negotiate a direct license from the owners. For YouTube purposes - which is essentially a sync license* - the owners do NOT have to grant you permission.

The most 'by-the-book' way to go about releasing a music video containing a cover song if YouTube does not have it in their system is to contact the copyright owner(s) in advance for permission. Information on who the copyright owner(s) is can be obtained by doing a lookup in the CMRRA database noted above. Your goal is to have the copyright owner (ie Sony/ATV Tunes LLC) issue you a sync license*, and then whitelist you on their copyright ID management system before your video even gets uploaded. The language of the license should explicitly state that they will whitelist you – under the channel name you will be uploading to once the license is granted.

*A sync license grants the right to use a musical recording with a moving picture, ie TV show, film, commercial, music video, etc. To sync music with a visual, ALL copyright owners – the songwriter and publishers, as well as the owner of the music recording (in this case, that’s you) must grant permission.

If you choose not to contact the copyright owners in advance, and just go ahead and upload the video to YouTube, a number of things can happen. After uploading, YouTube’s content ID system gets to work to identify if music used in your video matches other known audio in their database, and:

  • The content owner can then approve your usage, but not allow you to monetize it.
  • The content owner may agree to your usage, so long as your video is monetized and they get the income it generates on YouTube (they might also share the income with you).
  • The content owner can have the video portion containing music they own ‘muted.’
  • The content owner can have your video taken down, which can also result in copyright strikes against your YouTube channel.
  • And a few other variations.

The unpredictability of these results is why contacting the copyright owner ahead of publishing your video is the safest bet, however, in the majority of cases, the copyright owner will leave your video up and just monetize it so they’re earning revenue off of your upload.

Once the content owner is matched to your cover version, you may see information added to your video, as in the following examples for Billie Eilish “Bad Guy”:

Music in this video
Song: Bad Guy
Artist: The Interrupters ( <--- the artist who created the new cover)
Album: Bad Guy
Licensed to YouTube by: [Merlin] FUGA Aggregation (on behalf of Hellcat/Epitaph)

Song: Bad Guy
Artist: Postmodern Jukebox
Album: Bad Guy
Licensed to YouTube by: Studio71_2_5 (on behalf of Postmodern Jukebox); LatinAutor - UMPG, UMPI, Kobalt Music Publishing, UMPG Publishing, UNIAO BRASILEIRA DE EDITORAS DE MUSICA - UBEM, LatinAutor, AMRA, and 8 music rights societies

Song: Bad Guy
Artist: Ankor
Album: Bad Guy
Licensed to YouTube by: The Orchard Music (on behalf of Rock Estatal Records); AMRA, UMPG Publishing, LatinAutor - UMPG, UMPI, Kobalt Music Publishing, UNIAO BRASILEIRA DE EDITORAS DE MUSICA - UBEM, LatinAutor, and 7 music rights societies

When you see “Licenses” in a YouTube description: YouTube adds this information automatically to some videos when the video has been identified and “claimed” by music rightsholders via YouTube’s rights management tools, including Content ID. These notes may link to a music video or other official content for each song.

Here’s a few informational vids YouTube has posted on the matter if you'd like to go farther.

  •  (cover song note at 2:00)

Note that the Content ID system is not perfect. It may flag music that you in fact own, or even which is owned by nobody (ie ambient noises). If so, follow YouTube’s dispute processes to get things cleared up.

Digital Distribution (Apple Music, Spotify, etc): The easiest of all to license. CMRRA notes, “The licensing and royalty reporting obligations related to the online distribution of recordings to Canadian consumers is the responsibility of the entity that offers this service to those consumers (such as iTunes, Spotify, etc...). CMRRA directly licenses the online music services that do business in Canada and as such, you, as a CMRRA licensee for the physical product, are not required to obtain a license for online distribution by such third-party services.”

In other words, Spotify and the other digital distributors have negotiated blanket license deals with CMRRA, and pay copyright holders directly through the fees they collect, saving you from dealing with this step. When you upload singles/albums through distribution services such as Tunecore, CD Baby, Indie Pool, etc, they will request information related to the songwriters and/or ask if your song is a cover. CHECK THIS IN ADVANCE because U.S.-based distributors like Distrokid cannot obtain mechanical licenses for Canadians, and may refuse to let you upload cover songs as part of your album. Check first, because you may need to switch to a different digital distributor in this case.

Bandcamp: Bandcamp is not included in the list of digital distribution sites with 'pre authorizations' in place. Treat it like a physical sale site and get a mechanical license. Their terms are here.

Bandcamp states, "If you’re an artist who would like to cover a track, we require that you hold or otherwise control all the rights of the music you upload. So you'll need to have a performance license (to cover streaming playback) and a mechanical license (to cover downloads) for any covers you upload to Bandcamp, which you can often obtain with the help of some third-party licensing organizations. Once you have those then you're set - but keep that paperwork on hand in case we need it for anything."

What if you can't find the copyright owners? CMRRA notes, "It may happen from time to time that a copyright owner cannot be identified or located. If this is the case with the musical work you wish to use, CMRRA will refund the royalties to you after we have exhausted all possible avenues of research. At that point, you may then apply to the Copyright Board of Canada for an Unlocatable Owner’s licence pursuant to Section 77 of the Copyright Act."

Can I earn royalties?

Yes, there are avenues to earn money from recording a cover. Although you will not earn any of the songwriting/publishing royalties related to the song, such as those paid out by SOCAN for radio airplay, you would own the new master recording and be able to collect royalties related to that just the same as for your own original material recording.

This includes neighbouring rights royalties (which are paid to the performers on the recording for radio airplay in Canada and other countries excluding the USA), interactive streaming (ie Spotify) and non-interactive streaming royalties (ie webcasters, cable, satellite), and the master use portion of sync* licenses.

*If you had an opportunity to license your cover song for usage in a TV show, movie, commercial, etc you would need to request a sync license from the copyright owners of the song. Negotiations would take place between the show producer and all the stakeholders of the song (you for the master sound recording, and the songwriter/publisher for the copyright).

And of course, you’ll earn income for digital or physical sales of the song.

Happy recording!

Questions that weren’t covered in this article, or comments to share? Let us know.