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3 questions to ask before covering a song

In the age of viral videos featuring cute kids singing songs on YouTube, covering another artist’s music seems standard. Even with the ubiquity of cover songs, it’s still important to make sure that before you record music written and performed by another artist you have the right permission.

Here are three questions to ask yourself before you start strumming those familiar chords.

1. Is the song’s copyright in the public domain?

If the work was published before 1923, the answer is definitely yes. For works published after January 1, 1923 and before January 1, 1978, it’s more complicated. The United States Copyright Office says for all works created after January 1, 1978, the copyright lasts for the life of its author plus 70 years.

There is also the possibility that the artist has decided to put their work into the public domain before that time, so it’s worth checking.

2. Will the cover song be recorded?

If your sole intent is to cover a song at a live performance, you don’t have to worry about receiving permission. However, if your cover is going to be recorded at all, you need to obtain a mechanical license.

That includes if you want to post a video of your live performance of that cover on YouTube. If the copyright owner complains, YouTube can delete the video or in some cases suspend your account. In other cases, you could be sued for copyright infringement. To be safe, consider how the cover will be used to determine what licensing, if any, is necessary.

3. Are you using a composition or a sound recording?

Musical composition copyright covers the music and lyrics of a song itself. Sound recording copyright covers the recording of an artist performing a song. In most cases, these two must be registered separately with the Copyright Office, which means the owner could be different.

If you are going to ask for copyright permission for the use of a song, consider what you are using – just the music and lyrics? The distinct way an artist recorded a song? A sample of the original recording itself? Once you’ve determined what you want to use, that will determine who you need to contact for permission.

Copyright infringement can hurt an emerging artist, so be careful before recording a cover so you don’t face legal action.

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