Recording a Cover Song: Most Basic Things in Music Law #1

 Recording a Cover Song: Most Basic Things in Music Law #1
by Sue Basko

See much more music law and business at my other blog:

See also: Can a Songwriter Prevent a Cover Song?

It's easy to legally record a cover song.  A cover song is a song written by someone else.  Just go to Limelight and pay a $15 service fee and about 10 cents in songwriter royalties for each copy of the song that you wish to make.  Limelight takes care of all the work for you. So, if you want to make 100 copies of a song you, will be paying  the $15 fee plus about $10, or $25 total.

You can also use a service by Harry Fox.  Or you can do it yourself, but that is complicated.

These kind of licenses are called mechanical licenses.  The royalties are called mechanical royalties.  Mechanical royalties are used to make CDs, internet downloads, vinyl (wax), etc.

The mechanical royalty fee is the same per copy for any song, whether it be by an incredibly famous artist or by a local songwriter.  The royalty rate has been set by law, or statute, and so is called a statutory royalty.  The royalty rate at this time is about 10 cents per song copy. 

The songwriter or publisher is compelled by law to allow you to record the song once you give notice of your intent to take a license on it.  That is why a mechanical license is called a compulsory license.  It is compulsory for the songwriter/ publisher to give you the license.  Limelight and Harry Fox take care of the process of giving notice to the right people and paying the royalties.

In most other nations, the songwriter royalties are paid after a song copy is sold.  In the U.S., the royalties are paid upfront in advance, before the song copies are sold or distributed.

You owe song royalties for every copy you make, whether you give those away for free, sell them, or let them sit in a box collecting dust.

These rules apply if: 
1) You are recording and producing the recording in the U.S.; 
2) You are selling the recording in the U.S.;
3) The song is subject to the U.S. Copyright laws.  Songs from musicals or operas are not included in this cover song law.  To record those, you need to deal directly with the publisher.

 And .. that is all there is to it.  So, go record your favorite hit song.  Have fun.


  1. Hi Sue,

    Thanks for you're interesting article. I'm a young musician looking to understand more about legal issues and royalty payments in the music industry. I really enjoyed you're article and you're blog but I was left with a few questions I think you may be able to help with. When an artist records a cover song that sells a large amount of records how much of the revenue created is payed to the original composer? For example let's say artist A records a song and sells a lot of records and the 2 years later artist B records the song and sells a large amount of records again, will artist B have to pay all the revenue created to artist A? Also is there a difference between songwriting royalties and performing royalties? And if so how is it decided which revenue goes where? I recently read a good article on recording a cover song: However I'm looking to understand more about the business of what happens which the gross revenue created.

    Many thanks for you're interesting article and I hope you can help me understand this subject more.


    1. Dear Dave, You may want to see my other blog that gets more into music law. it is: Http:// I deal with U.S. law. You cite a UK blog. Law outside the US is not the same as law inside the US. In the US, royalties on cover songs are paid to the songwriter and/or publisher, not to any previous artist that may have recorded the song. In the US, the royalty fee that goes to the songwriter/publisher is about 10 cents per song copy, and significantly less when bought in bulk by a big record label. In the US, the previous artists, who may have been the ones that made the song famous, are not entitled to any royalties on a cover song, unless they artist is also the songwriter, which is sometimes the case. This is why it is very important for every band member to have a lawyer, for there to be band contracts, etc. Every person should understand what stake they do or do not have in a song.


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