So You Want to Play a Cover Song on YouTube?

I have a few videos on YouTube of my original songs and I’m getting some views from my loyal fans, but I’m not getting any new fans from those videos. Mostly because nobody knows who I am. So I decided to go the route of playing a cover song for my YouTube channel. Don’t worry. I’m not turning into one of those artists that does only cover songs, but it is undeniable that people like to see other artists cover their favorite musician. So to try and get new fans I decided to record a video of myself performing the song “Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan.

I don’t like to speculate, but I’m pretty sure that most of the people on YouTube that do covers just record the song and post it on their channel. I like to follow the rules (most of the time) so I had to find out the proper way of being able to record this song. There are licenses involved and I don’t want to upset off Mr. Dylan and his people. So what are the rules to properly record a cover for YouTube?

For starters, you’re going to need a license. The general idea behind a license for music is the same concept as your drivers license. You can have the keys to your car, but you can’t legally drive the car without a license. Sure you can go on the road without a license and if you don’t get caught, then you’re fine. But let’s say you get in an accident or you’re caught speeding. When the officer asks for that license and you don’t have it then your screwed. So that is the basic premise of a license. There are different types of licenses.

Mechanical License

When you record a cover song and give it away, sell it or stream it you are going to need a mechanical license. I will right a more detail blog about what a mechanical license is, but for now you can visit the website called Limelight: Cover Song Licenses to understand more about mechanical licenses.

Synchronization License (Sync License)

If you perform a cover song on video and upload that video to YouTube, Vimeo, MetaCafe, etc… you are going to need a synchronization license or sync license. Most musicians don’t get a sync license for their cover song on YouTube. As I mentioned earlier, you can drive a car without a license and IF you don’t get caught then everything is fine. That is until somebody raises a red flag about your video.

How It Works

A song is made up of lyrics and musical composition. These were created by somebody and that person or people have intellectual rights to those works. It is their intellectual property. They own it. This means they can choose what to do with it. Let’s say for instance a songwriter wrote the lyrics and made the musical composition, then that songwriter owns those works which means the copyright belongs to them. There are times that the songwriter will assign the copyrights over to a music publisher or they may publish the works themselves and assign the copyright over to a publishing administrator. The company or person has control over the music and can decide who can get the music and what that person can do with the music.

If a person wants to cover a song, all they have to do is get a mechanical license and the copyright owner must give a mechanical license to a person who wishes to record the song. But there is no law that says that copyright owners must give a synch license to people who want to cover their song. This means that the copyright owner (songwriter or publisher) can choose if they want you to perform their song on a video for YouTube. If they do decide that they will let you use their song for a synch license, they can charge you. They have total control on what to charge. They can charge one person a little and another person a boat load.

If you want to make a cover song for YouTube and you want to get a synch license, you’ll have to contact the owner of that song whether it be the songwriter or publisher. The owner may allow you to post the video. That’s great. Make you sure you have proof of this in case something happens down the line. If it was a major publisher, then they most likely have synch licenses available directly on their website. If you do record their song make sure to do a decent job. Don’t change the lyrics or make it obscene for viewers. Otherwise that owner will see it and will ask for the video to be taken down. It’s completely in their right to do so. Also, make sure to give credit where credit is due. If it’s not your song, then let people know who the original artist is. It’s just plain respect.

So what could happen if you didn’t get a synch license and you decide to go rogue on your YouTube video? I’ve done some research on the matter and here are some possible scenarios. Please remember that I’m not a legal authority on the matter. This means I’m not a lawyer, I’m a simple musician. If you have deeper and more complex questions, seek legal advice from a qualified entertainment lawyer.

  1. YouTube will alert you by email saying that the material you posted is owned by another (songwriter or publisher). They say this as a warning and will not take the video down. YouTube might just put some ads next to the video and tell people where the song can be purchased. That is unless the publisher finds out and decides to take action.
  2. The owner can find out about it and sue you. They can also demand money for the use of their song without their permission. They could possibly sue you for a lot even if you didn’t make any money on it. Not sure if that’s a high probability. There are so many songs on the internet that are cover songs that most likely don’t have synch licenses. It would be a drain on the company to constantly be searching YouTube and attempting to sue every musician who decided to just post a video of themselves in their bedroom playing their favorite artist. I’m not saying that it won’t happen, but it would be awfully nit picky of the owner to do that.
  3. YouTube will do nothing, leave the video up and let people watch it. I figure most artist and publishers would want to have their songs covered by other artists because it’s basically free advertising for them and their song.
  4. YouTube could possibly take it down. The owner might not sure the artist, but they might not want their song to be covered. For what reason I have no idea, but it’s up to the owner. If you consistently keep posting videos and getting trouble with copyright owners, YouTube could delete your channel!

Many times a publisher knows which songs will or will not be allowed to go up on YouTube. If you’re surfing around YouTube and notice a certain song that a lot of people are covering then I would say it’s a safe bet that the owner will let that video stay up. If you are the only person with the cover on YouTube, then it might be because the owner are having those videos taken down. Once an owner of a song reports a copyright violation, YouTube will have that video taken down immediately. Once the video is taken down, this usually satisfies the owner and they don’t sue the artists. I mean that would be just petty!

So there you have it. You can either get permission or you can’t. If you do get permission, then awesome. If you don’t get permission and decide to proceed with the video, then you could face the consequences. In all honesty, it doesn’t look like the consequences would be too severe. You would just waste your time making a video and learning a song. I hope this helps someone out there.