Can I Record a Cover Song Whenever I Want, or Do I Need Copyright Permission?

Have you ever wanted to record a cover song and put it on the internet? If you are a singer or songwriter looking to gain more exposure, covering another artists’ song can be a great way to showcase your talents. But how do you cover someone else’s song without being sued for copyright infringement?

We’ve all been there. As songwriters, we all struggle for the attention we think we deserve. But as many of us have found, it can be difficult to gain the traction we hope for when releasing our own original music on the internet. Sometimes the best way to gain notoriety as a songwriter or performer, is to cover another artists’ work with your own unique perspective and voice. If you are ready to release some of your own cover songs, here are some helpful tips to ensure you don’t get sued.

Sound Recordings Vs. Composition – What is the difference?

There are two different properties to focus on: the sound recording (master) and the composition (the song itself). As the artist, if you have recorded your cover yourself then congratulations, you own the property called the sound recording. However, the copyright to the song still remains in the hands of the original copyright holder. In order to get permission to sell your version of the song, you need to obtain a mechanical license. Although it sounds like something a car repairman would use to fix the engine of 1990 Ford Taurus, this mind-blowing “mechanical license” can make all of your musical dreams come true.

Obtaining a mechanical license from a songwriter or their publisher gives you the permission to record, reproduce or make copies of the song.

Mechanical Royalties – How much does it cost to cover a song?

Every copy of the song sold, adds up. The established amount of money each copy sells for is called the mechanical royalty. The rate currently set by the Copyright Royalty Board is $0.091 (rates may change). Here is a breakdown: When you record a cover song, every time your recording sells/makes a profit, you owe the songwriter or publisher about 9 cents out of every dollar. You get notoriety, can still earn some profit yourself, and the original songwriter/publisher still gets paid as well. Everybody wins!

Ready to record a cover song? Here’s how to get started…

The Harry Fox Agency (recently acquired by SESAC) acts on behalf of publishers and songwriters, and administers music publishing rights. If you wish to cover a song and release it, head over to Harry Fox Agency to submit an application for a mechanical license.

If you don’t know who the publisher of a song or songwriter is, you can search the PRO’s (Performing Rights Organization) databases at ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC:

Lastly, if a song is in the public domain it does not need a mechanical license to cover. To see if a song is in the public domain you can search the database at the Public Domain Information Project.

Looking for even more useful info about recording cover songs? Check out our article “Why Make Cover Songs?

Now that you know the basics, let the world hear your covers!

32 Comments
  • lucinda copes
    Posted at 23:23h, 14 February Reply

    This site is very informational and I found what I need to know about my journey into the music industry of singing, and the why not! (maybe this is where I will make use of the information, should I try out for singing lessons again!)

  • Peter burns
    Posted at 00:44h, 21 March Reply

    I have over 170 cover song recordings are you saying sesac etc allow you to put these up on the World Wide Web?? I’ve always thought I’ve wasted years doing cover recordings as copyright would get in the way??…thanks

    • info@demomysong.com
      Posted at 19:59h, 22 March Reply

      Hi Peter, yes at the very least you can very likely share those cover song recordings on YouTube. You can check Youtube’s database to see if a song is already covered by their standard licence agreement:
      https://www.youtube.com/music_policies
      Here is also another article with some additional info on the subject. Hope it helps!

  • Brody Blackburn
    Posted at 17:19h, 19 May Reply

    Should I claim copyright to my sound recordings? If so, do I do this before or after I obtain a license to distribut my cover?

    • Shiwen Chen
      Posted at 14:21h, 22 May Reply

      Hi brody, thank you for your message. You should obtain a license to distribute your cover first, and then claim the copyright to your recording. I hope it helps!

  • Dave Snow
    Posted at 01:02h, 04 August Reply

    What if am not selling the cover or making money from it, what if I am just doing it for the fun? Do I still need copyright permission??

    • Shiwen Chen
      Posted at 23:18h, 06 August Reply

      Hi Dave, thank you for your question. “Unless you are creating recordings that are covered under the fair use section of the U.S. Copyright Act, you need to obtain licenses for your recordings regardless of whether or not you are selling them.”

    • Leonardo Fancon
      Posted at 02:51h, 07 October Reply

      Dave, I’m also thinking about the same thing. What if we are covering songs not for business purposes but just for the love of covering… I don’t think copyright permission is required for this.

      • info@demomysong.com
        Posted at 21:10h, 09 October

        Hi Leonardo, thanks for writing in. If you intend to post your cover songs where people can hear them online, you should always obtain a proper license first. If you want to upload the cover song to YouTube for example, I would first search their database to find out what the current copyright status is:
        https://www.youtube.com/music_policies
        Hope it helps!

  • rlionbEntertainment
    Posted at 23:18h, 19 August Reply

    Hi, I recorded a cover Song and wrote New lyrics, Melody and Interpretation; But I used the Instrumental of the Original Music. How do I publish my work and still get to keep my right to the Lyrics and recording?

    • info@demomysong.com
      Posted at 23:17h, 03 September Reply

      Hello, thank you for the excellent question. If you have completely changed the melody and lyrics from the original song that you are covering, then you may be able to publish it as your own work. However, if you intend to release it, I would at the very least suggest reharmonizing your new melody so the instrumental is not copying or infringing on anyone’s existing copyright.

  • Yvette Uwayezu
    Posted at 20:34h, 19 December Reply

    Hello, do you mean that one has to get permission for every song one is going to do a cover for, from the song writer or from singers themselves? Can you please explain more? Thank you!

  • Lynette Hazzard
    Posted at 09:01h, 03 January Reply

    I worked with a song writer and we recorded four songs in the studio. I have the masters. As the singer, can I go ahead and upload them to YouTube or do I also need copywrite permission?

  • Scott Young
    Posted at 18:45h, 12 February Reply

    Recently I performed at a small venue and a video was made for us. All songs were cover songs. One song I know is public domain. I would like to know is, if copies can be made and sold to recover cost only? With any proceeds going to charity through my music ministry?

    • info@demomysong.com
      Posted at 15:03h, 13 February Reply

      Hi Scott, technically if you are making copies for sale you should acquire a mechanical license. Harry Fox Agency can help with that. Here is the link to their website: https://www.harryfox.com/.

  • Hernan Estavilla
    Posted at 07:42h, 13 February Reply

    I have a friend a master sax artist who wish to record cover songs of different singers using his sax, reproduce and sell it. Does he needs to acquire permission/mechanical license for every song? If it requires, how and where?
    Kindly explain. Thanks!

  • Noosh
    Posted at 18:02h, 30 July Reply

    Very informative… thank you. One question, if I would want to do a cover song from an artist from another country does it have the same kind of laws or does each country have own copyright law so?

    • demomysong
      Posted at 00:27h, 31 July Reply

      Hi Noosh,

      Thanks for the great question. The laws will vary between countries. I would start with the agencies in your country and they should be able to direct you to the right place. I’m not sure whether Harry Fox Agency covers the UK but I would start there: https://www.harryfox.com

  • Jeffrey M Bader
    Posted at 18:02h, 30 July Reply

    I work for a marketing agency and want to use a popular song in a commercial. If I can get a band to cover it, what type of routes would I need to go to get the rights to use a self-recorded cover? thanks!

    • demomysong
      Posted at 00:50h, 31 July Reply

      Hi Jeffery, you will want to obtain a mechanical license through Harry Fox Agency https://www.harryfox.com. If you need a band, we would be happy to assist you with producing the cover.

  • Jae
    Posted at 18:03h, 30 July Reply

    What permissions would I need to rework/remix/rerecord a track that belongs to someone else, then post it online (Soundcloud) for everyone to listen to for free?
    And, what permissions would be required for me to perform these tracks live – paid or unpaid.
    In both scenarios, I would be giving full credit to the original artist.
    Thanks!

    • demomysong
      Posted at 00:17h, 31 July Reply

      Hi Jae, you can remix music and release it without a mechanical license if you want to. The Grey Album by Danger Mouse comes to mind. If you want to perform the tracks in any paid venue you will want to obtain a mechanical license from HFA (https://www.harryfox.com).

  • Kayla Crow
    Posted at 18:03h, 30 July Reply

    I want to record a few covers, not to sell or upload, but to give as a gift to my children. Do I still need to obtain a mechanical license for those covers even if they are not being uploaded or sold anywhere?

    • demomysong
      Posted at 00:46h, 31 July Reply

      Hi Kayla, sounds like a fun gift! You don’t need to obtain a mechanical license if you are not selling the cover songs or uploading them online.

  • Lebo
    Posted at 18:04h, 30 July Reply

    Can I record a demo song which belongs to another person with asking permission but the reason I recorded it is bcz I wanna submit the demo to the same record company that the artist belongs to

    • demomysong
      Posted at 00:54h, 31 July Reply

      Hi Lebo, if you are submitting a vocal demo to a record company you don’t need to obtain a license.

  • Eddie Crosby
    Posted at 18:07h, 30 July Reply

    I am at this time having my covers pulled. I have made no money on any of my records. I need to know what I need to do to license a cover song legally. Can you please email me?

    • demomysong
      Posted at 00:03h, 31 July Reply

      If you want to formally release a cover song I suggest obtaining a mechanical license from Harry Fox Agency. However, you may not need to if you only plan to release the music on YouTube. Many copyright holders have made agreements with YouTube that allow their songs to be used in exchange for the ad revenue generated on YouTube. YouTube has opened the dataset for you to search all the hit songs that shared their opt-in policy about how you can use their songs on YouTube. Here you go – https://www.youtube.com/music_policies

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