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Music Copyright Laws:
Using cover song versions legally

Music Copyright Laws: Using cover song versions legally

A search for Hendrix's publishing was another matter entirely. Depending on which performance rights organization I searched through, both "Bella Godiva Music" and/or "Experience Hendrix LLC" administered Hendrix's publishing rights. To make a long story short, Experience Hendrix LLC was the correct one. I sent my same "pre-fab" letter to their P.O. Box (the only indicated address); it came back three weeks later as "undeliverable to addressee" because nobody signed for it. (Again, I sent it certified w/return receipt-a bad idea for P.O. boxes, apparently.) On a deadline by now (I was looking to release this disc in a couple months), I located a phone number for Experience Hendrix LLC and got the ball rolling that way. They requested I e-mail their Music Publishing & Licensing contact, asking them to e-mail me back (as an attachment): "a downloadable version of the form I need to submit in order to obtain a mechanical license for the making and distribution of 1000 CDs-Track: 'Castles Made of Sand'." I was also informed that they needed to approve a copy of my "cover version" first, before they could grant me a mechanical license. Fine by me! I sent them a CD-R copy of my almost-final mix, with their filled-out e-mail form (replete with Hendrix logo!), and a few weeks later, finally got the official "go ahead."

So there you have it: Two of three possible paths for legally covering another artist's song. In the end, if you go direct to the publisher, you'll do away with the HFA's $10 filing fee. Personally, given the time it took "going direct" (to say nothing of the anxiety it caused), I'd gladly pay that $10 any day of the week! You'll just need to weigh your own personal "time vs. money" options.

So what about licensing method #3? Well, if you've exhausted all reasonable means and can't locate the copyright holder(s) for the song(s) you've covered, you can file the same Notice of Intention to Obtain a Compulsory License with the Library of Congress, Copyright Office, Licensing Division. Each song needs to be filed separately, and there's a $12 filing fee (per song). The Library of Congress will establish to whom royalties are paid by identifying the copyright owner. At that point, you'll need to make all due royalty payments-and make sure you pay! (Hint: "dot gov"!) If you find you need to go that route, make sure you compose your correspondence to these specifications (PDF), as prescribed by the US Copyright office. In the event you have any questions, the Library of Congress can provide you with detailed instructions concerning this form. Ask for the Copyright Office Regulations on Compulsory License for Making and Distributing Phonorecords, Circulars 96 Section 201.18 and 96 Section 201.19, and address your request to:

Library of Congress
Copyright Office
Licensing Division, LM-458
101 Independence Avenue, S.E.
Washington, D.C. 20557-6400

Meanwhile, here's another (PDF) sample of a "pre-fab" Notice of Intention to Obtain a Compulsory License I found online.

Finally, be aware that being granted a mechanical license does not mean you can reprint that song's lyrics in your CD's sleeve. (You must clear these rights through the publisher directly.) And samples-audio excerpts from the artist's original master recording-need to be cleared differently; for this, you must obtain a MASTER RECORDING LICENSE directly from the record company that owns the master to the recording. I believe Harry Fox used to offer this type of license, but has since discontinued doing so.) Further, sale of MP3 downloads requires a separate DIGITAL LICENSE.

In the end, all the footwork I had to engage in (and anxiety I had to endure) to legally take this "stocking stuffer" to the next level was well worth the effort. I now have a CD of songs I really like, performances I'm proud of, and a nice memento of a personal "place in time" that I can proudly distribute. I hope you some day consider doing the same. Good luck!

About the Author:

In addition to being a performing/recording musician, Dale Turner is also West Coast Editor of Guitar One magazine, an instructor at Hollywood's Musician's Institute, and has authored numerous guitar publications for Hal Leonard, Cherry Lane, and Warner Brothers. His latest CD, INTERPRETATIONS - Solo Arrangements for Guitar and Voice, has just been released on the INTIMATE AUDIO label.


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