Music Copyright Laws:
Using cover song versions legally
Also check out these related CleverJoe articles:
Music Copyright Laws: Using cover song versions legally
The Cover Song Quagmire:
Three Ways to Obtain Mechanical
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 (www.harryfox.com),
I discovered that the HFA (among other things) specializes in the following
(licensing of copyrighted musical
compositions for use on CDs, records, tapes, and certain digital configurations)
(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 Songfile.com (click
here)." Since I was planning on manufacturing 1,000 units-arguably
the most common number for an "indie" CD run-HFA's www.songfile.com
sounded right for my purposes.
On songfile.com, 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, songfile.com 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"
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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