How to Legally Sell Downloads of Cover Songs

January 5, 2011{ 119 Comments }

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).

Marketing your music 101: 
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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:

DIY Musician


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

DIY Musician


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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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()

  • 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.

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

  • 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?

    • 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?

    • 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?

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

  • Yep. Indeed.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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)

    • 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.

  • 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!)

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.


  • 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.


  • Sure thing.


  • 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.


  • 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?

    • 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!

  • 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

  • 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

  • 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

  • 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

  • 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

  • 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.

    • 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

  • 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

  • Corey

    Glad to know it is easier than I thought. I assume most who cover songs do so for the love of the song more than any money they may or may not make selling the song. I just want to do one song as a dedication on an “album”.

  • Are you talking about paying royalties for cover songs that you’re distributing (either as a download or on CD?) If so, you could pay the publisher directly (if they allow that), but normally you’d go through an intermediary agency that collects mechanical royalties on behalf of publishers. Check out and Harry Fox Agency.


  • Damn. That’s a tough situation. Very frustrating. Sorry to hear that. As far as a solution, I’d say — since you’ve tried all the normal channels — get an entertainment attorney to help you find a solution. The recordings you’ve heard online, were they officially released with the permission of the video game company/publisher/composers? If so, there’s GOT to be a way to legally release your cover songs. If those tunes were NOT officially release, but leaked somehow, or recorded as covers themselves without the permission of the publishers,… then you might be at their mercy.


    • JP

      Thanks for your reply Chris. I’m sure it was an official soundtrack release so I guess I do have to find legal advice on how to do this the right way now. Thanks for your advice!

  • roko vance

    Hi Chris! What if I record a cover version of a song in a different language originally recorded with different lyrics in English but the the same music? Does this below all apply?

    • I’d check with an entertainment attorney to be sure, but from my understanding you’ll be fine doing a cover song in translation. However, if you CHANGE the lyrics in translation (as in, ignoring the source text) then you’d be getting into the area of a derivative work, which would require the publisher’s and songwriter’s permissions.


  • roko vance

    Hi Chris! What if I record a cover version of a song in a different language originally recorded with different lyrics in English but the the same music? Does this below all apply?

  • Hi Mike,

    I THINK you’d be fine just getting a standard mechanical license for this, but I would run it by a music attorney to be sure. Sorry to not be more help here, but I’m just unsure how it works when the work is created to exist not exactly like a cover song, but as an instructional tool that probably relies on the band’s name in order to sell. If you do find out, and you think of it, let me know.


  • What if you use the melody of a song but make up your own words? Do you have to get permission to use your own words or do you just need to pay the royalties?

  • What if you use the melody of a song but make up your own words? Do you have to get permission to use your own words or do you just need to pay the royalties?

    • If the song is still protected by copyright then you’d need permission first. It wouldn’t be considered a cover song, technically. It’s a “derivative work,” and the publisher/songwriter can prevent you from distributing such a thing. Or maybe they’ll be nice and say yes (as long as you agree on a royalty split).


  • Hi there,

    I THINK you’re correct, but I would recommend talking to a music lawyer just to be sure. I’d hate for you to get in trouble if they were considered derivative works or some other kind of trademark/copyright infringement if the songs are sold specifically as backing tracks that use the bands’ names in order to garner sales.


  • As far as the sync license (for use of their composition/lyrics in the film, and for the use of their sound recording), they can pretty much ask for whatever they want. Usually bands are happy to give independent filmmakers somewhat of a “discount” since budgets aren’t always that big. But it’s up to them to request the amount they think is fair. Though you could always start the conversation by saying, “Hey, would you let me use your song and lyrics in my movie if I paid you ______ amount?”


  • As long as you don’t distribute those tracks (sell them, make them available for streaming, or give them away), you should be fine to proceed without a mechanical license. The venues should be paying performance royalties to ASCAP and BMI for instances where performers play cover songs in their establishments.


  • Happy to help.


  • In most territories outside the US, the music stores and streaming services account for and remit mechanicals directly to the mechanical collection societies. In the US, we are unique in that we treat the mechanical revenue as pass-thru to the owner of the sound recording. So basically, you usually don’t need to worry about mechanicals in foreign territories. The retailer/streaming platform takes care of it for you!


  • I can give you non-legal answers, of course, but to be sure, I’d recommend getting an expert opinion. But here goes…

    1. Can I print the lyrics of a covered song in the CD jacket? — Technically, probably not without permission, but if you’re paying the mechanicals upfront for those discs you’re manufacturing then I’m sure the publisher/songwriter will forgive you (or never know in the first place).
    2. Can I put the chord sheet up on my website? — Since you can’t copyright harmonic changes, I’d say go for it! Especially since you’ve already paid the mechanicals and the chord sheet will be another way of drawing more attention to the song.
    3. When I sell the CD/Download, what as an artist / label (my own indie label) / publisher (I self-publish) do I own? Should I register anything with the Library of Congress? — You own the sound recording (master recording) and you can also copyright the arrangement. I would recommend registering your version of the song with the LoC, yes.
    4. Can I use the song as background music on YouTube? — Technically, no. Not without a sync license. BUT… hundreds of thousands of people are uploading cover songs to YouTube without much of a fuss, and YouTube is monetizing cover songs on behalf of the publishers/songwriters across their video platform, so… you MIGHT be ok to go ahead and do it.
    5. How does iTunes Store (in different countries) and CD baby (as a website that can be viewed from around the world) work with international markets? How do I obtain a mechanical license for international use. —- Great question, and the answer is probably super complicated, but here’s my lay opinion: for any disc that you sell, regardless of where it ships, you’ve already paid the mechanical royalty (hopefully)… so don’t worry about where physical CDs are purchased globally. In terms of digital distribution, you can use Limelight to purchase DPDs (digital mechanical licenses) for the amount of downloads that happen in the US. For many international download stores, they set aside the mechanical royalty from the sales revenue and hold it until a publishing rights administrator comes to collect on behalf of artist/publisher, so again… you’re all set. They’re handling it for you.

    Hope that helps.


  • If they’re recognizable variations upon another person’s songs, then you’ve created a “derivative work.” You’d need the permission of the songwriter and publisher to sell those. It’s possible that you could call them regular old cover songs (for the purpose of getting the statuatory license in order to distribute them) even though it sounds like they’re pretty wild departures, but that’s more in the gray area of copyright and musical interpretation. If you want to be certain, I’d say you should take them to a qualified lawyer and get an expert opinion.


  • I don’t know if they’re still available to help, but it’d be worth sending them an email if you need assistance. And yes, I’d assume they’re all familiar with mechanicals.


  • jeremy

    I’m confused with Limelight and HarryFox, how can I pay ahead for digital sales when I have no idea how many will sell? It’s different than “I printed 100 of these.” … help?

    • They sell digital mechanical licenses in bundles. For instance, you could purchase 150 DPDs (covering you for 150 downloads) upfront. Once you’re approaching that sales mark, you can renew and buy some more.


  • victor camacho

    Hello so if I sell s cover song can that go on itunes

  • You would want to buy a bundle of DPDs in advance. Say, for 150 downloads or something. (Paid to Limelight or Harry Fox). And then you keep track of your sales. Once you’re nearing the 150 limit, you renew for another bundle of DPDs (and you can adjust the quantity up if sales warrant it).


  • I’m no expert on how mechanicals work internationally, but I’d suggest checking out Harry Fox’s website, as well as asking some publishing professionals in Germany. They can probably point you in the right direction.


  • Hi Jeremy,

    Apologies for the very delayed response. Holidaze!

    So, Spotify pays mechanicals to publishers and publishing rights administrators via Harry Fox Agency, which means you shouldn’t have to pay mechanicals for streaming out of your streaming license fees (the payment you get from CD Baby for the stream). I would suggest you double check the terms of your agreement again (and maybe consult with a laywer if the terms seem strange) but basically, Spotify holds that money from the stream, pays it to HFA, who then pays to the publisher/songwriter. No need for you to pay them TWICE!


  • Hi Holly,

    I’m actually not sure. My assumption is that you would pay mechanicals for the entire 15-30 minute thing, but I would recommend asking a lawyer to be sure. Actually, before you do that, check out Donald Passman’s “Everything You Need to Know About the Music Industry” first. I think he tackles those details about cover songs.


  • Not “permission,” per se. But you have to secure the mechanical licenses for those streams. SoundCloud requires that all uploaders have the rights they need before uploading. So, SC doesn’t pay any of these mechanicals on behalf of performances on the SC platform. The uploader is technically responsible.

    Digital Interactive Streams can be purchased from HFA when getting a compulsory license to cover this kind of performance in batches of 100, 500 or more. Obviously this is prohibitive for some artists, but it’ the only way to interpret the mechanical liability situation right now on SoundCloud. Doing covers has an expense attached to it, whether you are making money or not, same as paying mechanicals on CDs one gives our for free.


  • Well I’m not sure on this one. Sounds like you’ve really exhausted your options, huh? I’d suggest consulting with an attorney who knows about Irish copyright laws.


  • Nickolas

    Hi! I’m new to this. I was going to get licensing for a cover song on Limelight, but the following notice was posted on the site. “Limelight will no longer provide new license orders effective March 31st, 2015. Please download all existing licenses before June 30th, 2015 as site access will be unavailable after that date.” Should I still use them, or is there a better option?

    • I’d suggest you check out Harry Fox (HFA) since you’ll want to file the bulk of the paperwork one time with one company, and then just do the easy renewals if you end up needing to get more mechanical licenses.


  • Are you talking about other people uploading cover song videos? In most cases, that is fine. YouTube will identify the content as a copyright composition and cut the writer/publisher in on ad revenue from those videos.


    • Craig Crestford

      I’m purchasing master and sync licenses for an indie game. I’m wondering if I become responsible for royalties, lets say I take the trailer offline to stop paying royalties, then fans reupload it. I should probably ask my lawyer instead. lol

  • So is the version your about to release your own recording of a cover song? In that case you just need to get a mechanical license and arrange (through Harry Fox) to pay the publisher/songwriter. If you’ve created a new recording of the song, then you don’t need to negotiate anything with the label or owner of the original master.


  • So is the version your about to release your own recording of a cover song? In that case you just need to get a mechanical license and arrange (through Harry Fox) to pay the publisher/songwriter. If you’ve created a new recording of the song, then you don’t need to negotiate anything with the label or owner of the original master.


  • That’s a great question. I believe the answer is yes, you’d still need a license, especially if you’re generating income from it — but I would talk to a lawyer to see how you might go about securing all the rights you’d need.


  • That’s tough. What was the band called? Any way of finding contact info for any of the members online?


  • I’m not sure I understand the question. Are you wanting to secure the rights to sell a cover song? If so, check out

    If you’re looking for distribution, well,… CD Baby! ; )


  • LaKeisha

    I used Flo-rida and robin thick song I don’t like it beat I used their chorus but wrote diff verses …I just want to use for promo use …didn’t know I could put it on iTunes….is this the same process listed in the article? Is there a service you guys provide that handles the paperwork etc with doing something like this?

  • LaKeisha

    I used Flo-rida and robin thick song I don’t like it beat I used their chorus but wrote diff verses …I just want to use for promo use …didn’t know I could put it on iTunes….is this the same process listed in the article? Is there a service you guys provide that handles the paperwork etc with doing something like this?

    • If you used a portion of an existing song and then modified it, writing new verses, then you’ve created what is known as a derivative work. There is no standard, compulsory licensing procedure for that kind of song. You would need to get permission from the publisher of the original song in order to distribute it. They can grant or deny permission, and set the terms for its usage. So, the short answer is: start by contacting the publisher.


      • LaKeisha

        Ok Kool. What if I just want to use for promo …use not to gain any fees but to put on soundcloud or as a free download in exchange for an email address from a fan? Also what about the lyrics I wrote over the beat…wouldnt I need to still copyright them? I wish you guys had a legal service lol I would pay right now and every time I need these questions answered to get the right advice and next best steps !! Help

        • You can’t distribute it in any form (even for free) without the permission of the publisher/songwriter. That includes Soundcloud and on your website in exchange for email. You DO own the copyright to the original lyrics you wrote — however, you can’t use them in conjunction with the existing work without their permission. You could put those lyrics over different music, beat, or to a new melody and call it your own song, though.


          • LaKeisha

            awww dang!! ok ….hmmm i thought it’s like when people do mixtapes and rap their own verses over a popular radio song…. ok is there a service you guys offer to contact the publisher?

          • People do create and distribute mixtapes all the time, but I’ll bet most of those aren’t legally authorized/licensed.

            As for the publisher info, we don’t have that service, but you can always check out the databases of BMI, ASCAP, SESAC, and Harry Fox for publisher contact info.


          • LaKeisha

            thank you for helping me and all these others on this site!!! its a blessing to get answers!!! thank you thank you 🙂

  • We only have a service to license standard cover songs:

    If you’re looking to do something like a derivative work or using a sample, it’s best (required) to talk to the rights holders.


  • You should secure the mechanical licenses FIRST, then distribute the song to retailers like iTunes, Amazon, etc. It’s a pretty quick process, though, so it shouldn’t cause any big delays.


  • You should secure the mechanical licenses FIRST, then distribute the song to retailers like iTunes, Amazon, etc. It’s a pretty quick process, though, so it shouldn’t cause any big delays.


  • Samuel Da Silva

    If a track is not released by the artist, but is copyrighted, can I still record it?

    • In order to get the compulsory mechanical license to cover a song, that track has to have been commercially release. But you could always contact the songwriter/publisher to see if you can be the first artist to release the song.


  • When you purchased the stems, were there terms attached to their usage? I’d read through that fine print in order to know what your rights are regarding distributing your version/remix.


  • You need the permission of the publisher, even if you’ve only borrowed the lyrics. They can deny you permission, or agree and set any terms they like.


  • Austin

    Let’s say I made the mistake of releasing an album that included cover songs and did not get around to obtaining and paying for the mechanical licenses. Would it be possible, say 4 years later, to obtain the licenses and pay for those CDs?

    • Anything is possible! I would recommend talking to someone with legal expertise in that realm though, just to make sure you handle it in such a way that the publishers don’t get pissed about the lapse.


  • Have you searched for the publisher name on Harry Fox, ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC?


  • I’m not sure how exactly it work in South Africa, but in the US you do NOT need to get a license as the musician to perform cover songs. It is the responsibility of the venue to take care of those fees with performing rights organizations. Also, in order to record a demo CD of cover songs, you would need to get mechanical licenses for each copy you make (even if you give them away). Check out these services; they make it easy:


  • The two services we’re partnered with ( help you legally license cover songs for distribution, NOT for sync licensing. The producer of the commercial would need to get 2 separate sync licenses: one from you for the sound recording, and another from the publisher of the song.



  • For licensing a cover song? I don’t think so, but it’s best to read the fine print, I suppose.


  • A translation is not a cover song, in the simple sense of the term. Legally speaking, it’s a derivative work, and thus you cannot just get a mechanical license to distribute the song. You need the permission of the publisher.