#091: Scott Sellwood – How to License a Cover Song


Scott SellwoodAn amazing number of CD Baby artists have achieved success through their version of a cover song. Covers provide an opportunity to be discovered by fans searching for a well-known song. It’s a great way to introduce your act, and can open the door to someone discovering your original music, but you do have to acquire the rights first. In this episode, Scott Sellwood of RightsFlow walks us through how to properly license a cover song. Even if you have licensed a cover in the past for CDs, Scott helps to make sense of the different types of licenses needed in the digital age.  Need to license a cover song?  Check out the cover song licensing services CD Baby recommends HERE.




  • The medley question is an interesting one — we have two medleys on our record that contain cover songs, and we’ve always just paid the full individual 9.1 cents for each composition. It never occurred to me that some labels might want to split a single royalty. That seems needlessly complicated.

    In the future, what would really be wonderful is if CD Baby could work with a company like RightsFlow to pay the mechanicals for downloads on behalf of the CD Baby artist whenever the payments come in–for a fee, of course. So, basically, we would never have to worry about whether or not we’re caught up with all our digital sales, and never have to worry about over or underpayment.

  • I’ve not listened yet – obviously I will do – but before I do can I just ask if this is applicable to UK artists? I’m in a tribute band as well as my main band and the ability to sell recordings of our live performances would be very good indeed.

  • Scott, you only have to “aquire the right” to do a song if it’s the first recording. If Paul McCartney writes a song and is the publisher of that song and grants you permission to be the first to record it (wouldn’t that be nice) he can negotiate a rate with you. That rate can be greater than or less than the statutory rate. After you’ve recorded it, anyone in the world can record it. They have but to get a licence (the “permission” is automatic from that point on) and pay the STATUTORY mechenical rate. “Mechenical” is any vehicle for imparting a copy of the recording. BMI and ASCAP don’t handle this. They handle “performance royalties”; a different subject.
    This rate statutory rate is set by the copy write office, but is paid to the licence issuer (most often the Harry Fox Agencey.) “Cover song” is slang for doing a song which has been previously recorded, so your recording of the hypethetical Paul McCarney song would not be a “cover song,” but subsequent recordings would. Nobody has the “right” to steal music, whether it’s using a recording which hasn’t been paid for or offering up your own recording of a song for sale when the publishing (and therefore the writer) has not been paid.
    I hope this is helpful.
    Doug Haywood

  • Hello – enjoyed the discussion on licensing. It’s important to understand from both sides of the fence.

    Quick question: do you need a mechanical license for cover songs that are streamed only?(i.e. you tube video)


  • Chad – We are working on implementing that type of mechanical licensing service through CD Baby. Not sure when it will actually happen. Stay tuned!

  • Mike – You do not need a license for a cover song if you’re only releasing it on YouTube. YouTube pays performance license fees that cover it.

  • Kevin, Why do artists put full songs on youtube? Do they get performance license fees? I always wondered about that question. Please help me understand.

  • I’ve had success with this single piano instrumental cover of Sting’s Fields of Gold. http://stevencravis.com/stingfieldsofgold.html

    A big part of the success has been the fine cover art designed by Thomas Christian Wolfe from http://www.wowstudios.net

  • Hi Kevin,

    I echo Darren’s question about UK artists’ need for some sense on licensing covers for CD Baby release, the issue has been dragging on for years!

    Chad’s suggestion is excellent and I hope you’re able to make it happen. Are you aware that MySongStore allow artists to access Harry Fox Associates from within their website to apply for and get the license? That gets over the issue of having to be an American citizen with a US bank account before you can use HFA’s online clearance service.

    Thanks for looking into this, it’s very important to a lot of your UK customers.

  • Andy (viral gigs)

    What’s the story on licensing a cover song that you want to give away as a freebie?

    Does the full royalty have to be paid on each free download?

    Cheers – Andy

  • Ted Shinn

    If I want to use a cover song that I’ve recorded and it’s over a hundred years old, is that considered “public domain” and therefore exempt from a mechanical royalty?
    The song in question is “In The Bleak Midwinter” written in 1872 and set to music in 1906.

  • How do I track down the estate of the legendary Delta Bluesman Robert Johnson ? I would like to include a different tempo & lyric version on my next release. Thanks !

  • Interesting episode and a good topic but also lacking in some ways. I’ll illustrate:
    #1, A cover song is “recording a third party’s song”. Wrong. A cover song is a recording of a previously recorded and released work, not a recording of a song belonging to a third party. An artist could for example leave his/her band and later record a new version of a song released when he/she was a member of the band. That new recording would be a cover, even if the person recording it, owned the rights to the new recording.

    #2 Digital licensing and mechanical licensing are NOT the same. In fact, despite your guests claims, they are not even billed at the same rate. Mechanical licenses cannot be refused, digital licenses can. Mechanical licenses are indeed 9.1 cents or lower if the licensor gives the artist a break when licensing the song. Digital licenses are purchased on x number of digital copies per year, not total sold. If you pay for 100 digital licenses and only sell 25 in the year, you still have to pay for 100 and the remaining licenses expire at the end of the year. Which means, you would then have to license another batch at the next calendar year. Mechanical licenses are in perpetuity for a given number of copies pressed.

    #3 The information on streaming types is incorrect. Wether interractive or not, the streamed content is subject to performance royalties which are generally handled by the various PROs and the fees streamers pay, just like the restaraunt with a jukebox or muzak playing are covered under those conditions. Podcasts under current law must do one of two things. Either they must obtain permission from the artist to include the track in the podcast or, they must obtain a compulsary license from the PROs to include copyrighted works. This is not the same as mechanical licensing nor is it the same as digital distribution licensing.

    #4, Where the recording is distributed is irrelivant. The license to distribute specifies where it may be distributed not a given entity tasked with collecting after the fact royalties.

    #5, If the Limelight service somehow circumvents the law by keeping the digital license active beyond the mandatory 1 year period then perhaps it’s a great deal but I highly doubt they can in fact legally do so. The law is quite clear, digital licenses are good for a period of 1 calendar year.

    #6, Medleys are no different than any other cover song. Every component of the medley is subject to mechanical and digital licensing.

    #7, It’s true that publishers are innundated with license requests but, it’s also true that you do not need permission to record a cover you only have to request that permission. It cannot be denied by law however, you are, if you haven’t exchanged monies for a mechanical license, required to hold those compulsary royalties in escrow so you can pay the royalty payment on demand if/when the request for payment comes. Again, digital distribution rights are a diferent matter entirely. You cannot, sell digital downloads of a cover song without first obtaining a license to that track to do so.

    Outside of the podcast, Kevin, you’re right and wrong with regards to YouTube. Yes, YouTube pays a license to the labels and publishers via the PROs and agreements they’ve reached with various labels but, the artist is indeed responsible for obtaining a mechanical license if they intend to distribute that track in a tangible form. This is only a gray area when the sole distribution is via a video of a live performance. In this case, the royalties are paid by the venue in which the video was recorded and by YouTube. Even so, digital distribution of a cover may still require digital licensing if for instance the video ends up going viral.

    The main things to know about licensing covers is this, mechanical licensing is compulsary. Meaning, the rights holder cannot deny you permission to record and press your cd with that cover song. You MUST attempt to gain that permission in writing but it cannot be denied.

    Digital distribution licensing is NOT compulsary. Meaning, the rights holder CAN deny you the right to digitally distribute that song and you cannot legally distribute that song without first obtaining that license to do so.

    In both cases, the artist is responsible for either paying the licensing fees or, in leu of obtaining permission to a compulsary license, holding those fees in escrow and maintaining full accounting of units sold basically forever. Digital licensing doesn’t work that way. You license it up front or you don’t put it out. In fact, legally you cannot put it out.

    It is best to seek the advise of a licensed and experience entertainment attorney on all such issues. A general practitioner or business law attorney hasn’t the knowlege nor experience to adequately answer these questions.

  • My question kind of dovetails off of Doug’s comment. I produced a record a few years ago where a singer covered a Prince tune, which was not available via Harry Fox. We wrote the publisher (Universal was handling the rights on this tune) and were “denied licensing” for that tune. Then I discovered the compulsory mechanical license law on the .gov website. All we had to do was send a letter, registered mail, to the copyright holder, and pay the royalty (9.1 cents for 1000 cds, 91.00), and even if they didn’t get back to us, it was still a legally acquired license (we actually still had trouble getting the CD duplicator to press our CD with only that compulsory license in hand, but that is another story). Just curious if this kind of thing comes up w/limelight (do they have to go down this “compulsory license” route?), and if I correctly understand the law as I read it, and as Doug Haywood describes it.

  • Bono

    Don’t forget about getting the rights to use that cover song in your music video. Sure the U.S. Law allows anyone to re-record and release any already previously released song (as long as you notify the copyright owner of this intent and make royalty payments according to how the government requires them to be paid. You can record anyones song WITHOUT permission as long as you notifiy the copyright owner and follow the exact laws and procedures of required royalty payments) ….but when you add video to the overall picture you are talking about “Synch” rights and this is a whole different ballgame.

  • Tom

    Nice podcast! Shame there is no information about licensing US (or otherwise) music from another country (eg. the UK)

  • Hey guys – Scott specifically stated in the podcast that Rightsflow can help you obtain a license even if you’re not in the US. BUT, the license they get you only covers the USA territory. This is different than Harry Fox and one of the reasons we started working with them.

  • Robert Lee King


    Does the full royalty have to paid on a cover you’re giving away as a freebie? For a digital download you are responsible for first obtaining permission and purchasing a license to digitally sell a number of copies you expect to sell. Even when the sale price is zero.


    Being 100 years old does not mean the song is in the public domain. Do a copyright search on the song. If that song is no longer listed then the answer is, maybe. Basically, proceed at your own risk.


    Robert johnson’s estate may not own the rights. The first place to check is the last label he recorded on. If they don’t hold the rights they should be able to direct you to the publishing house or even the performing rights organization his material is covered by.

  • Seconding Andy’s question about freebies. Do you pay mech. royalties for each free download, too?

  • DeMand

    I’ve recorded a great cover song of a U.K. artist and I completely understand releasing the song digitally in the states. I know who the publishing company and songwriters are. the problem I’m having is licensing digitally worldwide. Unfortunately, this is one of the very few songs that Harry Fox does not license. They sent me an email stating to give them 6 weeks to assist me and it’s been 6 months. The Artist who’s song it belongs to is VERY well known and also owns the copyrights. I don’t know if I should just trash the song or not. Any assistance would be greatly appreciated. Thanks

  • Ted – Concerning Public Domain songs: A song over a hundred years old will be in the public domain, but you need to make sure you are basing your version on the original version that is in fact public domain. Where a lot of artists go wrong is hearing someones version of a public domain song and basing their cover on that newer version. Music and lyrics published in the USA in 1922 or earlier are in the public domain.

    http://PDInfo.com is the best place to go to find out if the song you are interested in is in the public domain. They even sell sheet music to the original PD versions of the songs. This site is an excellent resource for Christmas music as well. We see artists covering Christmas songs from the 50’s assuming they are public domain.

  • Several people have asked is a license is needed to give away a cover song as a free download. The answer is YES! The same is true if you print up a bunch of CD’s and give them away. The license is due when you make the copy, NOT when you make a sale. Giving away a free download would be considered as making a copy, so you must ay the royalties on that.

  • Jae

    I tried to get the mechanical license to record my version of a very well-known cover song, and the artist’s “people” refused to give me the license because it would be a “new arrangement” (This song was not handled by Harry Fox). But basically, isn’t their reason for refusal an infringement on artistic license? Can I just inform them, then, that I will be recording my version and hold the royalties in escrow? Is the copy of my registered letter to the artist’s organization the compusory license? I’ve been waiting six years to record this song. Any help greatly appreciated.

  • Alexis Ortega y su orq Abda

    We not recomemd everybody to record a cover song,is a real ball of fire,think and do your own stuff,believe is the best way.Enjoy it

  • I received an email from Germany requesting that one of the Christmas songs from my CD be considered for a compilation Christmas CD to be sold at a POS checkout hardware store with no other music product competition. They offered a set fee. My album is with CD Baby. Someone please advise

  • I agree with the first comment left by Chad Smalley.

    Wouldn’t it be great if CD Baby as the record company [providing the UPC number]would take care of the licensing of all digitally released cover songs [for a fee of course]. I would gladly let them charge double the compulsory rate for example so that I would not have to keep tabs on how many downloads were sold and if it was time to purchase another license.

    The whole problem with this is that when you release an album with a number of cover songs, they don’t all sell at the same rate. So you may have to get a new license for only one song at a time and if you ever decide to remove the album from digital distribution you will likely have paid for downloads that were not sold and never would be.

    Robert Lee King raises an interesting point about the law requiring that a digital license is only good for one year when it includes prepaid downloads. I removed an album I released from digital distribution because one song on the album didn’t sell but I had to license it every year and pay for 150 downloads plus the fee to Harry Fox Agency even though I only sold 5 downloads. I would like to think that a digital license does not have to expire at the end of one year but is that the case or not?

    I have to wonder if Limelight has their stuff together or not.

  • Patricia

    Informative, educational, interesting, helpful. This is GREAT! Thank you.

  • Can you break this down for me as if we were just 2 bluesmen at the coffee shop talking and people watching:
    Do we get paid for youtube views for original or legally licensed cover tunes performed live, how much and by whom?
    Do we get paid for indie radio stations playing our music, original or legally licensed covers,how much and by whom?
    Calvin B. Streets
    The Brooklyn Bluesman

  • Are you a licensed and experienced entertainment attorney, Robert Lee King?

  • LEE

    Hi. Good info on Mechanical’s ….

    But ….

    Regarding using “Karaoke” Tracs as “Backing” Tracs ….. I have found several Karaoke Tracs that I would like to use to create a CD ( Free Giveaways at this point but I expect a royalty will need to be paid anyway as stated in the mechanical issue ). How is that licensing handled and what is the cost. Example would be using the Produced Backing Tracs from several different Karaoke Companys and then putting as many as 20 songs per CD. Additionally, if I am able to get some airplay on some of these Karaoke Trac “Backed” Recordings, how is that license handled ? Does it then become the Radio Stations responsibility through the BMI, ASCAP and Sesac to pay royalty for airplay or the artists ?

    Thank You in advance for your answers !!!


  • Diana

    Very good information Kevin! With regard to youtube- can we make a music video to a cover song and not have to get a license?! i was under the impression that whenever you synch music to visual- that you have to obtain the rights and pay a synch fee? (it would be great if they could just use them as advertisements for the song which I see pop up “buy this song” sometimes..

    Also I”m hoping somehow the accounting system can get easier- I released 3 albums with 36 different songwriters/songs and lord- do I hate figuring out the streams/download/physical sales each year.. Luckily I got a friend who’s an accountant to do it for me last year- but I wish I could do it myself.. I’ts stopping me from doing another cd- cause it’s so confusing adding up different streams for each song etc…

    Lastly not sure why people would ask what they have to pay- for free giveaways- why wouldn’t you pay to use someone else’s music.. free or not free. You take on that responsibility when you cover someone else’s work to pay them for everything you use of theirs, it’s only fair..

  • Diana I can answer the youtube question. You technically do need to pay a license to post a video of you playing a cover song. ZZ Top’s publisher contacted me recently and told me to remove my band’s version of “Jesus Just Left Chicago.” When I challenged this notice, they were able to produce evidence they held the publishing rights, and said they would pursue the matter legally if I didn’t remove the video. The video had only about 500 hits over the course of 2 years, so popularity had nothing to do with it. Now, it took them 2 years to decide to pursue me, and at that point, all I had to do was remove the video.

  • I should also mention that was on YOUTUBE; it’s a popular misunderstanding among musicians that youtube pays blanket licensing to allow cover songs to be posted. That is INCORRECT.

  • Lee,

    You CANNOT, under any circumstances, use karaoke tracks on your own for sale or for free product. All Karaoke manufacturers state this quite clearly on each and every disk. They pay a mechanical royalty to the copyright and publishing rights holders to produce that track and sell a specific number of copies. Technically, their use by Karaoke DJs is actually illegal though no-one seems to enforce that so far.


    Thank you so much for coming forward and explaining so clearly, the very thing I’ve been trying to get through people’s heads for years now.

    Everyone else,

    As I’ve always advised, write your own music, don’t do covers to get noticed. Or, be prepared to pay through the nose for the priveledge of using someone else’s work.

  • jan

    From reading previous comments, let me see if I got it straight (and please correct me if I am wrong):
    1) If one does a cover on a physical CD, a one-time mechanical license from Harry Fox or Limelight will stand forever.

    2) If one does a digital cover, one needs to contact Harry Fox and take out a digital license, to be renewed each year. In addition, it is questionable whether Limelight has the right to do a “forever” digital license. How would we find out what is legally correct?

    2) If one wants to upload this digital cover to YouTube, would one also need to obtain a “synch” license? Where are they obtained? How much do they cost? Does it matter if there is just a still photo or actual video shown with the cover music?

    Thanks for clarifying the sometimes confusing details.

  • Jimee

    I want to record a cover song that was created by a top r&b superstar.
    I also want to change some of the words and music to accomodate the new meaning I have for that particular song. I wish to cross the song over to gospel. The melody will still be intact vocally and instrumentally but with different sounds and style used. I always wanted to do my own rendition of it. Is that possible and how do I go about doing such a thing? I’m seeking your professional advice.

  • For cover recordings, it would make far more sense to require companies such as iTunes to pay songwriters directly for each download in the U.S., just as they do for each download outside of the U.S. It is impractical to “guess” the number of downloads for any recording. Performers want to comply with the laws; however, the laws must be financially practical. If the laws pertaining to cover tunes remain financially impractical, then nobody will release a cover tune for digital download. It is far more practical for artists to pay writers after the download of a cover song. It removes the guess work and enables exact payment. Given that Scott Sellwood is a lawyer who practices laws in the area of mechanical licenses for cover recordings, his information appears to be far more credible, accurate and reliable than the self-professed, “experts” leaving comments before and after the podcast.

  • PJ

    I’m curious. No one speaks about Spoken Word (voiceover) recorded over another artists INSTRUMENTAL musical work. I’m sure mechanical license is in order, but to have the music played on radio…is a license required if you notifiy the copyright owner and follow the exact laws and procedures of required royalty payments?

  • I have written a parody(lyrics) to a well known country song. I have heard that parodies dont have to pay royalties(my understanding is that there was acourt case that covered that) I would like to know what the law is now. don

  • Steve

    What if the songs that you want to “cover” were first recorded in the late 1920’s and 30’s, and the publishing information is vague, at best?

    I checked the ASCAP site, and a few of these old songs I am interested in appear to be attached to a publisher, but it is not clear if those publishers are representing “the song’s old copyright” or just the rights attached to a more modern recording of an old traditional song.

    Perhaps the copyright lapsed on some of these old songs. How in the heck do you know?

  • I have read all of the comments. Without being nasty, all I read was a bunch of opinions (not answers). So here’s mine; would’nt it have been nice if a 3rd grader had written the copywrite/license laws; then we would’nt need overpriced attorneys trying to figure out how the laws really work! Lawyers, booking agents, the venue owner, publishers and I.R.S. make the money. Musicians need a day job. I’ll agree with the guy that said “WRITE YOUR OWN STUFF”.

  • Hello, I really loved the discussion, very educational. I have an unusual situation and I need advice.
    I want to record a cover with my own arrangement from a previous recorded and covered French composer. This song has no lyrics in English but only in the original French language end is handled by Harry Fox. I found on Youtube a guy who made an adaption (pretty close to a translation) to English from the original in French. This guy works in the amateur level. My question is if I pay HF for the license for both original French composers (music and lyric) Can I record this song in English? How do I include this (adaptor, translator, versioner) guy to get listed on my CD label? I would love to record this French song with his English words.

  • Another important question I guess I found up on the list with no answer.

    1. If I pay HF for a cover song can I make few changes on the lyrics to meet my style?
    2. Can I change the original lyrics to include a slang with the same meaning?

    Please clarify.

  • I’ve listened to this podcast, read the FAQ’s on CD Baby’s and Limelight’s website, and had some correspondence with CD Baby and PRS in the UK and I am still confused!

    I am based in the UK and I want to release an album, both physically as a CD and available as a download. MCPS (PRS) have told me that for the UK I just need an AP2 licence. It seems that for the USA I also need a licence for downloads which I can obtain through Limelight/RightsFlow.

    My questions are – if I buy the AP2 licence, and pay for a certain number of US downloads through RightsFlow, do I also need a licence for the physical CD’s in the US or will my AP2 licence cover this?

    Alternatively – if I buy the appropriate licence through Rightsflow, am I covered for my physical sales in the UK?

    I don’t want to buy two mechanical licences if it is not needed.

    Thanks for any help anyone can offer.

  • What info are we required to print on our CD jacket with regards to copyright? We are releasing a CD containing 12 cover songs.

  • Anonymous

    what about to make a intrumental version of a song?

  • I’m wanting to acquire a mechanical license for a very popular R&B classic. What do I need to do this? And it’ll be an instrumental version of the song… No vocals.

  • Info

    I want to  license  my own songs so they can be  used on radio stations-  I want a licence agreement  fo rmy songs themselves- please help  thanks Tivoli Skye

  • Veebdosa

    It is a dirty little secret record music publishers hide at all costs, that back during the 50s and 60s and even into the 70’s, nobody understood copyright, and a slug of millions of songs, including Beatles songs, were not renewed for their copyrights, or the publishing companies thought that when the record company copyright protected and registered the LP, that the individual songs were also protected and registered. Turned out this is NOT TRUE, each song at the time had to have its own registration/protection, BUT THEY DID NOT. Consequently, so I am told, most 50 thru early 70s songs were NEVER protected, only the LPs they were on. I have heard that this is how Michael Jackson was duped into purchasing what he THOUGHT were copyrights on Beatles songs, when actually all Apple Records sold him was the copyrights on the physical LPs. What it amounts to, I am told, is that almost all 50 – 70 songs are in the public domain, but publishers just bluff their way by intimidation of suing cover song recording artist. Makes sense to me.

  • slanderpanda

    I am using cdbaby to distribute my band’s album and we have covered a short excerpt of a public domain song (Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag”). How do I go about listing “Composer”, “Publisher” etc.? I thought I did it correctly (Ticked the “Cover Song” box, listed Composer as Scott Joplin, and the Publisher as My band), though I got an email back saying this was incorrect and they couldn’t process the album any further until I fixed it. What should I do?

  • How come Limelight charges a service fee for each format: CD, digital download, etc??
    Arent they charging us twice for the one service of identifying (easy) and paying (slightly harder) the songwriter/publisher?

    What extra work are they doing to charge that extra service fee?? It gets expensive very quickly to pay the royalties on a cover song you put on your CD and then iTunes for example.

    Not sure I’m drinking the Rightsflow cool aid on how great they are for us working musicians. 

    Its very easy to identify songwriters and publishers on the Harry Fox and Bmi, Ascap websites. Harry Fox also charges $15 (not sure they reduce the fee as you order more) 

    So what is so revolutionary about Rightsflow for the 99% of us who arent having other people record our music? 

    It is essentially another lawyer digging into our pockets. How about lowering the service fee to $5 and have it apply across all formats?

  • Ari Tietolman

    I’ve never really been a fan of cover songs nor cover bands for that matter… I do however like the idea of using this strategy with new and unknown artists to help build fan bases and gain traction at the early stages of their career.