Should I license my cover song?

If you intend to upload on youtube, sell, play on the radio, tv, ect. You must obtain a license to use the copyrighted song. You could be sued, have your accounts permanently deleted ect, if the copyright owner objects.

That being said, if you don't intend on mass distribution or creating a viral video, you just want the recording for yourself, maybe to share with a couple friends. Then it's likely you won't run into trouble.

If you plan on uploading your cover song to youtube, you should obtain a license regardless because Google may automatically suspend or delete your account for copyright violation.

So to summarize licensing your cover song, regardless of your intentions, it's better to be safe than sorry.

Helpful Licensing Links to Easily License your Songs
HarryFox.com
EasySongLicensing.com

How can I record a cover song?

Follow these steps so you can make your recording available for public distribution!

If you record a cover version of a song, you are entitled by law to release your recording commercially as long as you have the copyright owners consent. If you don't have the copyright owners consent and the copyright owner objects, you can be sued, your youtube account may be permanently deleted, it's not something you want to have happen. If you're serious about releasing your cover song, play it safe and obtain permission.

The US Copyright Act provides a “Compulsory License“, which means that if you follow the steps set forth by the statute, you can distribute your recording of that song on a CD, over the internet, ect.

How do I obtain a license for a cover song?

for an artist to obtain a compulsory license to digitally distribute cover songs over the Internet in the United States.

1) identify the owner(s) of the copyright to the song. The publisher.

You can search the song writer/publisher databases, here:

BMI (bmi.com)
ASCAP (ascap.com)
SESAC (sesac.com)
Harry Fox (songfile.com)
U.S. Copyright Office (copyright.gov)

Keep in mind that the owner of these rights is typically a publisher, and that the owner of the rights in the song is not the same as the owner of the rights to any particular recording of the song. So Record Labels are almost never the owners of the copyright to the musical composition – they typically own the sound recordings. You should be looking for the name of a publisher.

Be careful to identify the exact song you want, there are many songs with the same names. If you cannot find the owner through these websites, search the Copyright Office online.

2) Send a Letter of Intent – EXACTLY like this:

You must send one letter for each song for which you seek a compulsory license 30 days before you begin distribution of your downloads. The letter must be sent by registered or certified mail and contain the following:

a clear subject line/title that says “Notice of Intention to Obtain a Compulsory License for Making and Distributing Phonorecords“

-your full legal name
-all fictitious/assumed names (stage name, band name) used
-the names of each individual owning a 25% interest or more in the distribution of the song (band members, if you split your sales income)
-your fiscal year (usually January 1st – December 31st)
-your full physical address – P.O. boxes are unacceptable, unless that is the only option for addresses in your geographic region
-the title of the song
-name(s) of the author(s) of that song
-the type of configuration expecting to be made (a music file distributed over the Internet is called a “Digital Phonorecord Delivery” (DPD))
-the expected first date of distribution
-the name of the performer/band doing the cover
-your signature.

*If there is more than one publisher listed, sending a letter to one of them is sufficient for the compulsory mechanical license; however, if one or more of the copyright holders is not from the United States, it is best to send the notice to all copyright holders.

3) Send Royalty Statements and Pay Royalties

Once you begin distributing the song over the Internet, you must send monthly statements of royalties on or before the 20th of each month, and pay the royalties.

The monthly statement must be sent by registered or certified mail and include:

-a clear title that says “Monthly Statement of Account Under Compulsory License for Making and Distributing Phonorecords“
-the period (month and year) covered by the statement
-your full legal name
-all fictitious/assumed names (stage name, band name) used
-the names of each individual owning a 25% interest or more in the distribution of the song (band members, if you split your sales income)
-your full physical address – P.O. boxes are unacceptable, unless that is the only option for addresses in your geographic region
-the title of the song
-name(s) of the author(s) of that song
-the name of the performer/band doing the cover
-the playing time (length) of your recording of the song (minutes:seconds)
-the number of DPDs made, i.e. how many times your recording was downloaded
-the number of DPDs that were never delivered due to a failed transmission
-the number of DPDs that were retransmitted in order to complete/replace an incomplete/failed delivery
-the total royalty payable (number of total DPDs, not counting ones never delivered multiplied by the statutory royalty rate (see below))
-the following statement: “I certify that I have examined this Monthly Statement of Account and that all statements of fact contained herein are true, complete, and correct to the best of my knowledge, information, and belief, and are made in good faith“
-your signature

You must also send an Annual Statement of Account at the end of each calendar year, which is virtually identical in content to the Monthly Statements, but must be certified by a licensed Certified Public Accountant (CPA).

Statutory Royalty Rates

The current (2006) statutory rate for royalties is 9.1¢ for every copy sold if the playing time for the song is under five minutes.

If the playing time for the song is longer than five minutes, the rate is 1.75¢ per minute, rounding up to the next minute.

under 5 minutes = 9.1¢ per copy
5 to 6 minutes = 10.5¢ per copy (6 minutes x 1.75¢)
6 to 7 minutes = 12.25¢ per copy (7 minutes x 1.75¢)
7 to 8 minutes = 14.0¢ per copy (8 minutes x 1.75¢)
etc.

The Copyright Office can always keeps the most up to date information concerning statutory royalty rates at this link

**As long as your notice complies with Copyright Section 115, (described above), the publisher need do nothing other than receive the royalty payments. You don’t even have to wait for their reply.