How to Legally Sell Downloads of Cover Songs

January 5, 2011{ 57 Comments }

iStock 000002397165XSmall 201x300  How to Legally Sell Downloads of Cover Songs

Firstly, let us say that if you are planning to sell a cover song, CD Baby has partnered with Limelight to provide the quickest and most convenient way to secure mechanical licenses. Limelight makes cover song clearance easy without expensive lawyer fees and complicated paperwork. Check out Limelight HERE.

But if you’d like to handle the the process on your own, follow the steps below:

Please note that the below is not official legal advice, we are not your lawyers, and you should always contact your attorney before entering into any contract such as a license.

If you have recorded a cover version of someone else’s song, and you plan to make that recording available over the Internet, the following information applies to you.

You must follow these steps BEFORE you make your recording available for distribution to the public!

If you record a cover version of a song, (meaning your performance of a song that has been released in the U.S. with consent of the copyright owner), you are entitled by law to release your recording commercially, and the owner of the copyright to the song cannot prevent you from doing so.

The Copyright Act provides for what is called a “Compulsory License“, which means that if you follow the steps set forth by statute, you can distribute your recording of that song on a CD or over the internet.

The following details the procedure for individuals to obtain a compulsory license to digitally distribute cover songs over the Internet to end users in the United States.

Identify the Copyright Owner – the publisher

The first step is to identify the owner(s) of the copyright to the song. The publisher.

The easiest way to do this is to search the song writer/publisher databases, here:

Keep in mind that the owner of these rights is typically a publisher, and that the owner of the rights in the song is not the same as the owner of the rights to any particular recording of the song. In other words, Record Labels are almost never the owners of the copyright to the musical composition – they typically own only sound recordings. You should be looking for the name of a publisher (or in some cases an individual).

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Be careful to identify the exact song you want, as there are many songs with the same names. If you cannot find the owner through these websites, search the records of the Copyright Office online.

If you cannot find the copyright holder(s) after a thorough search, you can hire the U.S. Copyright Office to do a search for you.  But it is expensive, currently $165 per hour, and you must register the request online –

Instructions on how to do that are on “Circular 73″ from the U.S. Copyright Office, on a PDF file, here: WE STRONGLY RECOMMEND DOWNLOADING AND READING THIS FILE, because it carries the essence of this entire article.

Send a Letter of Intent – EXACTLY like this:

You must send one letter for each song for which you seek a compulsory license 30 days before you begin distribution of your downloads. The letter must be sent by registered or certified mail and contain the following:

  1. a clear subject line/title that says “Notice of Intention to Obtain a Compulsory License for Making and Distributing Phonorecords
  2. your full legal name
  3. all fictitious/assumed names (stage name, band name) used
  4. the names of each individual owning a 25% interest or more in the distribution of the song (band members, if you split your sales income)
  5. your fiscal year (usually January 1st – December 31st)
  6. your full physical address – P.O. boxes are unacceptable, unless that is the only option for addresses in your geographic region
  7. the title of the song
  8. name(s) of the author(s) of that song
  9. the type of configuration expecting to be made (a music file distributed over the Internet is called a “Digital Phonorecord Delivery” (DPD))
  10. the expected first date of distribution
  11. the name of the performer/band doing the cover
  12. your signature.

If there is more than one publisher listed, sending a letter to one of them is sufficient for the compulsory mechanical license; however, if one or more of the copyright holders is not from the United States, it is best to send the notice to all copyright holders.

Send Royalty Statements and Pay Royalties

Once you begin distributing the song over the Internet, you must send monthly statements of royalties on or before the 20th of each month, and pay the royalties.

The monthly statement must be sent by registered or certified mail and include:

  1. a clear title that says “Monthly Statement of Account Under Compulsory License for Making and Distributing Phonorecords
  2. the period (month and year) covered by the statement
  3. your full legal name
  4. all fictitious/assumed names (stage name, band name) used
  5. the names of each individual owning a 25% interest or more in the distribution of the song (band members, if you split your sales income)
  6. your full physical address – P.O. boxes are unacceptable, unless that is the only option for addresses in your geographic region
  7. the title of the song
  8. name(s) of the author(s) of that song
  9. the name of the performer/band doing the cover
  10. the playing time (length) of your recording of the song (minutes:seconds)
  11. the number of DPDs made, i.e. how many times your recording was downloaded
  12. the number of DPDs that were never delivered due to a failed transmission
  13. the number of DPDs that were retransmitted in order to complete/replace an incomplete/failed delivery
  14. the total royalty payable (number of total DPDs, not counting ones never delivered multiplied by the statutory royalty rate (see below))
  15. the following statement: “I certify that I have examined this Monthly Statement of Account and that all statements of fact contained herein are true, complete, and correct to the best of my knowledge, information, and belief, and are made in good faith
  16. your signature

You must also send an Annual Statement of Account at the end of each calendar year, which is virtually identical in content to the Monthly Statements, but must be certified by a licensed Certified Public Accountant (CPA).

Statutory Royalty Rates

The current (2006) statutory rate for royalties is 9.1¢ for every copy sold if the playing time for the song is under five minutes.

If the playing time for the song is longer than five minutes, the rate is 1.75¢ per minute, rounding up to the next minute.

  • under 5 minutes = 9.1¢ per copy
  • 5 to 6 minutes = 10.5¢ per copy (6 minutes x 1.75¢)
  • 6 to 7 minutes = 12.25¢ per copy (7 minutes x 1.75¢)
  • 7 to 8 minutes = 14.0¢ per copy (8 minutes x 1.75¢)
  • etc.

The Copyright Office can always keeps the most up to date information concerning statutory royalty rates at this link:

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Remember the law is on your side. You are entitled to a compulsory license by law. You have permission – (a compulsory license) – as soon as you send the notice, described above, to the proper publisher.

As long as your notice complies with Copyright Section 115, (described above), the publisher need do nothing other than receive the royalty payments. You don’t even need to wait for their reply.

Other Notes:

You may be able to negotiate a better deal for yourself, either with lower royalty rates or less frequent statements of account. If terms are negotiated which deviate from the standard Section 115 then a mechanical license will be issued by the publisher.

If you wish to distribute physical copies (e.g., CDs) of a cover song, you must obtain a similar compulsory license, available for most popular songs through Rights Flow at

For more information on compulsory licenses for all forms of distribution, please refer to the Copyright Office’s web site, at, and contact your attorney.

Helpful publications available through the Copyright Office include Circular 73 (Compulsory License for Making and Distributing Phonographs), Circular 75 (The Licensing Division of the Copyright Office), and M-200 (Checklists under Section 115 of Title 17).

If you have been distributing a cover song without a compulsory license or an agreement with the copyright owner, you are ineligible to obtain a compulsory license for that recording (!), and you may be subject to civil and/or criminal penalties for copyright infringement.

Be careful to follow the steps exactly as described above, in order to be legal.

Download and print/save these files:

These and more available at the U.S. Copyright Office website:

Experts that can help you:

Since this part of music is business and law, (not art), nobody listed below can help you for free, but all have offered their expert services at musician-friendly rates to help you with this topic.

  • C. Christopher Clark, Esq.
    Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick, LLP
    128 S. Tryon Street, Suite 1800
    Charlotte, North Carolina 28202
    (704) 945-2152
  • Richard D. Rose – Attorney
    9 Music Square South, 3700
    Nashville, TN 37203
  • Joyce Dollinger
    Dollinger, Gonski & Grossman
    One Old Country Road, Suite 102
    P.O. Box 9010
    Carle Place, New York 11514-9010

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Get Your Cover Song Selling Online at iTunes and CD Baby!  Click HERE

  • Music Marketing Chri

    Hey some really valuable information here.

    I just wondered what you should if you just cover a song and throw it up on YouTube?

    I've been able to get a lot of plays by covering hit songs and I just wondered if somebody might try and chase me up for cash in a few years even though I have not been making money directly from it?

    Interesting question of copyright law.



    • Chris R. at CD Baby

      Hey Chris,

      This is a kind of complicated issue. And keep in mind that I'm not a lawyer, so this isn't gospel truth, but I'm pretty sure that YouTube pays a blanket fee to the PROs that allows for cover-song streaming on their site. However, I also know that, at times, YouTube has been known to pull uploaded content from their site that contains cover-song material. So, from what I've gathered, you're safe to do so. But you should reserve a special place in the back of your mind to store the disappoint in the unlikely situation that they deactivate your video.

  • teahead

    Great article!

    And I have a similar question as Chris. I've planned on recording an EP of covers to give away as FREE downloads to subscribers to my mailing list. Obviously, I'd expect to pay a fee to use the songs but wonder how that's determined and applied for since there'll be no sales income. Any thoughts? Thanks!

    ~Your Teahead

    • Chris R. at CD Baby

      In this case, to be in accordance with the law, you DO need to pay mechanical royalties for any cover songs you're distributing, even if you're distributing it for free. Basically, the publishers that you're using THEIR songs to boost your career, win new fans, and potentially reap financial rewards when the cover songs leads to your increased popularity. They want a cut.

  • Karmistry Project

    Interesting artical.

    I was going to do an album of covers for free download, but I'll have to think twice now as I'll likely be out of pocket.


    Darren aka Karmistry project

  • Tina Helmuth

    You didn't put in here that you can go to Harry Fox for all licensing??

    • Chris R. at CD Baby

      You can certainly go to Harry Fox to acquire mechanical licenses for many many songs. CD Baby is partnered with Limelight because their service is better set up to cater to indie artists. That is why we mentioned them at the top.

  • Christian

    Awesome article!

    As musicians, we get so focused on creating new music that we forget that "covering" already existing songs still allows to make a brand new statement as we reinvent the song AND gain new audiences with those that know the song & the artist that cut it before we got to it! :)


  • Charlie

    Hello and thanks for the excellent article.

    We have a long-distance "band" with a friend in NYC. I am outside of the States.

    My question is: if one lives outside of the U.S. and wishes to sell cover songs on CD Baby (in the U.S. only, for now), AND wishes to not deal with red tape involving local out-of-the-U.S. PRS's, what to do? Would it suffice that my friend used his NYC account and address so as to do everything U.S.-bound? The main sales are probably going to happen there anyway as we're doing covers of indie stuff and some French "chanson" as well.

    Thanks in advance for your time and for collating such valuable resource!

  • Charlie

    My friend and I work a little à la Postal Service, sending tracks and developments of songs and such over email, which is why I call it a "band"… we are not playing gigs now but plan to definitely do so…

  • Chris R. at CD Baby


    You know, I'm actually not sure. It might be best to consult an entertainment attorney on that question.

  • Denae

    I need answers!!! :)

    I'm a high school student that recorded about 20 songs on my high school's piano just for fun. When they turned out very well, I became interested in possibly selling them. Here's the catch: Many of the songs are medleys that I arranged of songs that sometimes have nothing to do with each other. I don't have any idea about how to proceed. I was wondering that, because I re-arranged every song myself and used no sheet music, if I still have to go through all the royalty process. The only people that would get my CDs are my family and friends that wanna give me a little extra cash for college.

    What do I do??? I have no intention of selling my music on a high level, just at my graduation party.

    Will I get arrested or something if I do so??


    • Chris R. at CD Baby

      Hey Denae,

      So you recorded medleys of other people's music? You might want to consult this book:
      He's got some good info. I can't recall for sure, but I think medleys might be considered "derivative works" where you'd need to get the publishers permission in order to sell it. With a normal cover song, you are legally allowed to sell it as long as you've arranged to pay the publisher/writer directly or through a service like Limelight or Harry Fox. But I think medleys are a whole other story. Check that book or write to the folks at Limelight to be sure. I'm sure they'd be able to answer your question.

  • Pingback: If I sell covers through iTunes, do I have to pay licensing fees? - Quora

  • CD Baby Admin

    Great question. I'm not sure if there are international standards for mechanical licenses, but Limelight or Harry Fox Agency would be great places to check. They'll definitely know.

  • CD Baby Admin

    As long as you've secured your mechanical license for that song (through Limelight, Harry Fox, etc.) then you should be all set.

  • CD Baby Admin

    Yes. Most streaming sites pay the mechanical royalties for the artist. Download sites do not. At least in the US. So, generally, you only have to pay/report mechanical royalties on download and physical sales. But be sure to check your contract/license for details.

  • Steve

    Right at the top it states "Firstly, let us say that if you are planning to sell a cover song, CD Baby has partnered with Limelight to provide the quickest and most convenient way to secure mechanical licenses." Does that mean that licensing is integrated into the process of loading a cover song into CD Baby, or do you need to go through the process with Limelight before loading a song into CD Baby?

    • CD Baby Admin

      We recommend you get your licenses paid for first. You COULD do them both at the same time, but we'd want to hold off on actually distributing your music until you'd taken care of the mechanical royalties.

  • Homemadesoul

    Do I still a license if I want to stream the cover music for free?

    • CD Baby

      Well, there are still some gray areas here, and this isn't legal advice, so please communicate with the publisher of your cover song to be sure, but it seems like most of the streaming sites have arranged to pay mechanicals directly. If you've paid for DPDs for downloads, and you've secured mechanicals for any physical product, then you're probably safe to offer these cover songs in the streaming services.

  • Guest

    Does musician outside U.S can sell cover song that from U.S?

    • CD Baby

      Yes. You can. But you have to make sure you've covered all your legal ground and acquired the proper mechanical licenses.

  • Christopher Robley

    Yep. Indeed.

  • Christopher Robley

    Nope. Sounds like you understand it well. You need to secure the mechanical licenses (which is compulsory so long as you're abiding by the law, notifying the publisher, and paying them properly) if you're doing physical release, and DPDs (mechanicals for downloads) if you're selling MP3s. I recommend you use Limelight or some similar agency and pay the administration fee, though. It's way simpler than issuing monthly sales reports and checks to every publisher of every cover song you've recorded.

  • Christopher Robley

    You have to secure the mechanicals for digital sales (called "DPDs") separately. But Limelight can help you with that too! As for the regions you're covered for,… I'm pretty sure worldwide. But I would check with Limelight to be sure.

  • Christopher Robley

    No. If you write new lyrics to existing material, you're creating what is called a "derivative work," which requires the permission of the publisher/songwriter. They are not required to grant that permission, and if they do, it's within their power to determine the terms of the agreement in terms of copyright, splits, etc.

  • Stephen

    I think this is relevant: in regards to the royalty fee, is the playing time in question that of the original or the cover? What if you're only recording a fragment of a song? (as in a medley)

    • Christopher Robley

      I believe that a medley is considered a derivative work, in which case you need to consult with the publisher for the right permissions. But you might want to check with an entertainment attorney on that to be sure. Donald Passman's music biz book would also be a good resource. I'd look it up now, but my friend is borrowing my copy.

  • Christopher Robley

    Yes. Absolutely. Unless you've arranged for the distributor to get the license, but it seems like something that needs to be handled by the artist/label who owns the master recording of that cover song (you!)

  • Christopher Robley

    Well, if you contact the publishers directly, you can ask if they'd agree to a different arrangement regarding the standard mechanical royalty fees. Go into it expecting them to say no, though. Also, have you tried Harry Fox Agency? I'm not sure if they do international licenses, though. If they don't, I'll be their FAQ has some info about alternate services for UK.

    • Sean Townsend

      Thanks for the information Chris. I'm very grateful for the Harry Fox link. I will explore that avenue and hopefully find a way of obtaining the appropriate licenses. Thanks again for taking the time to assist me. All the best!

  • Christopher Robley

    Hey Nachman, the publisher and composer administer the copyright to the composition—but you absolutely own the copyright to your sound recording of that version of their song.

    • Nachman Fahrner

      Thank you Chris for taking the time and replying to my question!

      • Christopher Robley

        Sure thing.

  • Christopher Robley

    Well, you MIGHT be covered under the protection of Fair Use, but it's also possible that you're in the territory of "derivative work," as opposed to a straight cover song. Best to consult an entertainment attorney to be sure.

  • Larry Rust

    I had a friend in Atlanta that made the mistake of recording tracks of some Temptations and 4Tops Songs and changing the lyrics to have a religious message. The publisher would not give permission to change the lyrics. So he ended up eating it for recording cost and was not able to release. Always get permission first. They don't have to allow you to change the lyrics if they don't want to.

  • Larry Rust

    I recorded a new version and arrangement of "In A Gadda Da Vida". My version was 9 minutes instead of 17 minutes like the original. Harry Fox Agency charged me for the 9 Minutes in the license I got from them.

  • Christopher Robley

    That is a fantastic question,… and one I'd say you should consult with an attorney about, because it sounds fairly gray. If I were to guess, I'd say you probably can't JUST copyright the drum part. But if you marketed the book or recording with the corresponding song titles, or maybe even with the hint at those titles — then you're using someone else's intellectual property to profit, and could get into trouble. But that is just a guess.

    If you consult an attorney, I'd love to hear what they say. Lemme know how it goes.


  • Christopher Robley

    For the first case, you'd need to get a standard mechanical license. You can go through Harry Fox, RightsFlow, or even directly to the publisher to pay those mechanicals before pressing vinyl.

    For the second case, you CANNOT sell a derivative work without the permission of the publisher. They have complete control over if, how, when you are allowed to record and distribute a song of theirs that you've modified. So,… just contact the publisher directly for that case.

    Hope that helps.


  • Christopher Robley

    Sure thing.


  • Christopher Robley

    Well, I'm not a lawyer, so take all this with a grain of salt (and consider asking these same questions of an attorney to be certain). But basically,… I'd say: don't do that.

    Why? Well, you're getting into some unusual gray areas. It's KIND OF a cover song, since you're adding your own vocals. BUT, you'd also be sampling the original sound recordings and just adding your part. So you'd need to get clearances and pay royalties not just for the usage of the composition, but also for the usage of the master recording (the tracks). My gut feeling is that many of the labels/copyright holders that own those recordings will tell you that you can't do that. If some of them say ok, you're still left with a situation where you'll owe lots of royalties. Would there be any way for you to hire a local band to perform cover versions of these songs in a studio, and then you can record vocals? Going about this like a standard cover song would, I imagine, be cheaper and way easier.


  • Christopher Robley

    You don't need to pay the original performer AND the writer/publisher, just the writer/publisher. Is that Elton John? If so, you should contact Harry Fox or Limelight and get the licenses through them. BUT… that only covers you for releasing a cover version of the song — not a version that uses elements of an existing sound recording. That would require a license of a different sort. Also, standard mechanical licenses for cover songs would allow you to sell CDs/vinyl. DPDs (a digital mechanical license) allows you to sell MP3s. But in order to match the audio up with visuals for a DVD, you would again need to talk to the writer/publisher to get a sync license. Hope that helps.

    @ Chris Robley

    • Kirk McKinnell

      Thank you, it helps a lot!
      Best wishes, Kirk

  • Steven

    Hey, Chris. Great article.

    My band and I are looking to record some altered covers of songs using different structures, chord progressions, and/or melodies to make them our own song, while paying homage to the original. We're not planning on selling them, just putting them up for free on Bandcamp. What would we need to do, if anything, to make sure nothing comes back to bites us in the butt upon release?

    • Christopher Robley

      You still need to jump through the legal hoops even if you're distributing the music for free. It sounds like a gray area as to whether these songs would be considered cover songs or derivative works. If the first, you can just get a simple mechanical license to distribute the music. If the second, you need permission from the publisher in order to distribute.

      Good luck, and let me know how it goes.


      • Steven

        Thanks a bunch, Chris! We'll be looking into those channels then.

        Also, huge props to you for checking the comments of a 2 year old article!

        • Christopher Robley

          Ha. I try. Glad to help.


  • Christopher Robley

    Are you asking about covering songs by deceased writers? Same rules apply (as long as the song was written after 1923). You'd pay mechanical royalties to Michael Jackson's publisher.

    @ Chris Robley

  • Christopher Robley

    If the changes to the composition are minor, I don’t think that’d constitute a “derivative work.” More like a unique arrangement, which is fine.

    As for giving away downloads, it doesn’t matter to the publisher; you owe them money either way. And you owe them 9.1 cents per song sold/downloaded, regardless of whether you were paid or not. Of course, it’s possible to deal directly with the publisher/writer and ask them if they can make an exception for you — but I kinda doubt they’d do that, as mechanical royalties add up to big money for publishers.

    @ Chris Robley

  • Christopher Robley

    In the US, the label or rights holder (sometimes the artist) is responsible for paying mechanicals themselves. Stores like iTunes and distributors like CD Baby do not set aside mechanical royalties for Harry Fox or for publishers. So, you’d need to get both the mechanical license for your physical CDs and DPDs (digital version of mechanical licenses) for downloads.

    @ Chris Robley

  • Christopher Robley

    I’d assume the copyright owner of the sound recording (the label, or the artist if the project is self-released) is responsible for paying mechanicals — unless, of course, the person who signed the album up for distribution did so without the consent of the copyright holder. Then that person would be liable. (Though it’d probably take some lawyers to sort it all out).

    @ Chris Robley

  • Christopher Robley

    Well, it’s a complicated issue, because it sounds like you’re not simply doing a cover song (where you have musicians performing/recording a new version of an existing song). If it were a standard cover song, you could just go through Limelight or Harry Fox and get the required licenses for manufacturing CDs or selling downloads. However, if you’re using backing tracks, that requires permission from the company who owns the copyright to that recording. So you’ll have to ask them first, make sure it’s ok to use their recording, and THEN get the mechanical licenses required.

    @ Chris Robley

  • Christopher Robley

    It depends on what kind of license you got from Harry Fox. You need to pay a mechanical royalty for every CD you manufacture, and for every download you sell (in the US, at least). So I’d suggest contacting Harry Fox to see what your license gives you… license… to do. If you need help getting DPDs (mechanical licenses for cover songs sold digitally), check out Harry Fox or Limelight. Also, once those are squared away, you shouldn’t need any other license to sell through CD Baby (assuming you own the master recording, and you haven’t used any illegal samples). And yes, please list the actual songwriter and publisher info in that section.

    @ Chris Robley

  • Confused

    Hi, I wrote this already but I think it got lost. Basically: I recorded my friend’s composition, he gave me permission to record it, he doesn’t expect royalties or any kind of money. This song has never been published or recorded anywhere. Then do I still need to get licenses and pay to be able to sell this track, or just his verbal (actually text message) permission is enough? The rest of the album is just my compositions and old traditional tunes. No need to get any license or pay anything, then? Thank you, it’s very hard for me to find this kind of info and then understand it.

    • Christopher Robley

      If he is willing to forego all royalties, then you don’t need to pay him anything. BUT… I would suggest writing up a contract that you both sign. Also, he does have the right as the writer to authorize you as the first commercial recording. But if anyone covered it after you, they would need to contact him/his publisher to arrange mechanical royalty payments. Also, just to keep everything standardized,… have you considered paying him? Maybe you just pay him out of sales — 9.1 cents per song per album/download sold.

      @ Chris Robley

  • Christopher Robley

    Hi David, iTunes payments aren’t quarterly; they are monthly. They pay 45 days after the close of the month in which the sale took place. So if you sold a song in April, you’d receive payment and reporting on that sale in mid-June. We update your accounting dashboard with every sale from every retailer (streaming, download, etc.) AND also with all physical CD/vinyl/MP3 sales through as soon as we have the info. If you’re asking about sending a statement to a publisher for months with no sales, I’m not sure actually. It’d probably be a safe bet to check the terms of your licensing agreement with the publisher, or write to the publisher again just to be sure.

    @ Chris Robley