From the earliest days of YouTube, cover songs have been a cornerstone of the website’s massive collection of user-uploaded content.
But whether you’re a musician looking to build a following or a fan who really wants to share your take on Toto’s “Africa,” posting covers on YouTube puts you face-to-face with copyright law. That fact may sound scary and complicated, but don’t let copyright be the one thing that stops you from sharing your covers.
Let’s get the main question out of the way: Is it legal to upload covers to YouTube? Yes, it is! Taking the right steps to legally post covers to YouTube is surprisingly simple and equally accessible to artists of all backgrounds and experience levels.
In this post, we’ll teach you how to post covers on YouTube legally so that you can post awesome covers without worrying about them being taken down. The first step: Don’t panic. It’s easier than you think!
WHY PERFORM A COVER SONG?
As to why you would post covers on YouTube––if you’re an artist, there are a few good reasons:
- There’s a big community on YouTube dedicated to recreating popular songs in unique and eclectic ways. Think Postmodern Jukebox’s old-timey spins on modern hits, Pomplamoose’s ingenious mashups, Scary Pockets’ funktastic renditions of pop and rock classics...the list goes on.
- You’re probably playing a cover of a song by an artist you like, and in doing so, you can attract fans of that artist to your channel. Covers are a great way for early-career artists to build a strong and enthusiastic following through mutual fandom of more prominent figures.
- Covers are fun! They offer a unique chance to flex your creative muscles in a way that’s different from creating songs from scratch. Just because someone else wrote a song doesn’t mean you can’t make it your own.
There’s already a massive community of artists on YouTube that regularly post covers.
If you want to legally post covers on YouTube (or anywhere else, really), a basic understanding of copyright law goes a long way.
In a nutshell, copyright grants a creator of an original work the exclusive right to produce copies of and profit from said work. Copyright holders also have the option to let others use their work while being fairly compensated via licensing.
How Copyright Works for Music
In the music world, songwriters own the copyright to an original song as soon as it is made tangible, whether through a recording or written composition. Licensing is a normal and crucial part of a working musicians’ income: If you hear a song or background music in a TV show, movie or public space like a restaurant, then that means the song was licensed and the artist got paid for it.
To keep track of the royalties coming from licensing and publishing deals, artists can register their copyrighted songs with Performance Rights Organizations (PROs) like ASCAP and BMI, who monitor every performance of their members’ copyrighted material. Note that “performance” in this context means not just a live show, but any time a recording of a song is played for an audience or in public––onstage, on the radio, in a cafe, and yes, online via YouTube.
YouTube is a valuable tool for sharing music and building your audience.
HOW YOUTUBE HANDLES COPYRIGHT
YouTube’s main tool for monitoring copyright is the Content ID system, which tracks down copyrighted material on behalf of the owners. The software is able to identify audio, video and even song melodies, meaning that it can fairly easily detect covers.
If Content ID finds your cover video, it will receive a copyright claim and the copyright owner will have three options:
- Block the video in certain countries (or everywhere).
- Monetize the video via ad revenue.
- Track the video’s viewership analytics.
Since covers are a very normal part of YouTube at this point, the majority of holders go with the monetization option––after all, why not make some money off of free press? You don’t earn ad revenue from your video as a result, but the video at least gets to stay online, and there are other ways to monetize your content like posting your music to streaming services or setting up a Patreon.
Copyright Claims vs. Copyright Strikes
To reiterate, copyright claims on cover videos are pretty common occurrences and aren’t detrimental to you or your channel. Copyright strikes, on the other hand, result from copyright owners requesting a takedown via the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Not only does YouTube delete your video, but three copyright strikes terminates your channel completely. Fortunately, strikes are only reserved for particularly egregious violations, like passing off someone else’s song as your own. Artists receiving a copyright strike for a cover is almost never legally justified.
WHAT YOU NEED TO DO
If you want to just post the video for friends, family, or fun and not make any profit, you can just record your cover and upload it. Content ID will take care of claiming copyright and placing ads on your video for the holders to make money. It’s not very likely that the copyright holders will ask you to take a cover down, but that’s the worst thing they can do, anyway––you won’t get sued for singing Taylor Swift on YouTube.
However, if you want to build a music career online, then acquiring the right licenses is a must. While you can technically post covers on YouTube without copyright and hope you fly under the radar, that may not be a risk worth taking if you plan to build a sustainable online career and following.
The first license you’ll need is a mechanical license, which allows someone to create a unique version of an existing composition. To get a mechanical license, you can easily and (usually) affordably purchase one for most songs from services like the Harry Fox Agency. Having a mechanical license will also allow you to post your cover to streaming services, which is a key income source since you won’t make money directly off the YouTube video.
Also, membership-based services like Distrokid and We are the Hits automatically manage mechanical licensing and fees, so they’re good options if you intend to regularly post covers to YouTube and streaming services.
Synchronization licenses grant the right to pair a copyrighted song with video or visuals. While sync licenses are necessary for movies and TV shows to use songs, the reality is that they are tricky for the average independent artist or YouTuber to attain. You can get sync licenses by contacting and negotiating with the copyright holders directly, whether it be the artist, a record label or a publishing house.
You can find the contact info for most holders through PROs, but if you’re a small artist looking to cover a top 40 hit, you’re probably not going to get an answer any time soon. As an alternative, you can basically rely on Content ID to get in touch for you, which is what a large number of cover artists end up doing. Also, you don’t need a sync license to place your covers on streaming services––you only need a mechanical for that.
Now that you have the know-how to legally post covers on YouTube, check out our other blog posts to learn more about creating content for YouTube and building an online following: