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Music Copyright Laws:
Using cover song versions legally

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Music Copyright Laws: Using cover song versions legally

The Cover Song Quagmire:
Three Ways to Obtain Mechanical Licenses,
for Legally Recording/Distributing Cover Versions on CD

By Dale Turner (scroll down for bio and CD link)

For many musicians, a considerable amount of "play time" is spent learning other people's songs-either for cover band gigs, wedding performances, or merely to study another artist's work. If this sounds like you, as your repertoire has grown, it's highly likely one or more of those songs has sparked something extra-special inside you. Why not immortalize your efforts by recording some of those magical numbers and putting them on a CD? At the very least, one of those "classic" tracks might be the perfect way to punctuate your next disc!

But before you act, you need to know what steps you need to take to ensure you're protected, and the original songwriter gets his/her due. With this article, we'll take a look at the three primary paths you can take to obtain a mechanical license [a.k.a. Circular 73-Compulsory License For Making and Distributing Phonorecords (PDF)] to legally release your version of another artist's song. For reality's sake, we'll also include a little"story" to go with it-my personal experience releasing an album comprised of covers-to walk you through this somewhat tricky, time-consuming process. Let the games begin!

Way back in December 2000 I recorded a set of 10 cover songs, intending them to be nothing more than a CD-R Christmas gift for my Mother. Nothing fancy, just a bunch of classic tunes (Beach Boys, Beatles, Queen, etc.) I'd spent some time on months earlier, developing from an "arrangement" standpoint to add to my repertoire, then recorded totally "raw" in my home studio. When the holidays finally hit, needless to say, ma dug my little "stocking stuffer." And as an added bonus, it was a big hit amongst my relatives!

Well, after playing some of these tracks for some of my (thankfully) enthusiastic friends, I was encouraged to take these songs to the next level-offer them as a full-blown, shrink-wrapped CD, available to "quirky cover song" fans. However, though I went the extra mile trying to conceive of unique ways to present these tunes, I wrote nary a note of this music. In order to legally (and ethically) pull this off, I'd have to find out who to pay, credit, and get permission from. With none of my friends involved in publishing or entertainment law, I hadn't the foggiest idea how to go about this.

Enter the Harry Fox Agency, or HFA. After scouring the internet for "ballpark" legal advice, it became clear that the HFA was the central hub of all things relating to obtaining the rights to record and sell copies of songs written by other parties. (NOTE: Outside the US., similar Mechanical Rights agencies exist for Canada, the UK, Europe and elsewhere.) Upon locating the Harry Fox Agency's home page (, I discovered that the HFA (among other things) specializes in the following licensing services:

Mechanical Licensing
(licensing of copyrighted musical compositions for use on CDs, records, tapes, and certain digital configurations)

Digital Licensing
(licensing of copyrighted musical compositions in digital configurations, including but not limited to, full downloads, limited-use downloads, on-demand streaming and CD burning.)

Given that I was going the "CD" route, playing someone else's "copyrighted musical composition," this confirmed some of the things that I'd already read online-I needed a MECHANICAL LICENSE!

On the left side of the HFA homepage read the words: "To obtain an HFA Limited Quantity License (less than 2,500 units), use (click here)." Since I was planning on manufacturing 1,000 units-arguably the most common number for an "indie" CD run-HFA's sounded right for my purposes.

On, the steps to follow were simple: I clicked the "Song Search" link (note their browser requirements), entered the title of one of the songs I covered, and searched their database for the types of licenses available. Upon selecting the "mechanical license" option, I was asked the following multiple-choice questions (my answers appear in parentheses):

1) How many recordings will you make? [2500 COPIES OR LESS (LICENSE FEE MINIMUM IS 500 UNITS)]
2) Manufactured in what country? (WITHIN U.S.)
3) Distributed in what country? (WITHIN U.S.)
4) Which type of Organization do you represent? (INDIVIDUAL)

Based on the length of each song and the number of units you plan to sell, then computes a fee based upon the statutory mechanical royalty rate-the money collected for each sale of your cover version that goes directly to the song's writer and publisher (often split 50/50). Currently (January 1, 2004 to December 31, 2005), the "statutory mechanical royalty rate" is:

8.50 Cents for songs 5 minutes or less
1.65 Cents per minute or fraction thereof over 5 minutes.

At that rate, for my purposes, covering a single song under five minutes long (selling 1,000 copies of it), added up to an $85 fee. Since I was going to be licensing 10 songs, I'd have to pay at least $850! (Two of the songs I recorded were actually over six minutes. At the current rate, that calculates to $115 each.) To say the least, that's a pretty substantial up-front investment! (On a per song basis, this fee can be paid online by credit card; otherwise you have to do the entire process manually by filling out a form and mailing it in to the HFA with a check.)


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