Will I Get Sued on YouTube? Licensing a Cover Song 19

Will YouTube Sue Me? Licensing a Cover Song, Synch Licensing

If you record a cover song, you need to get licensing rights and pay royalties.

My band is recording a cover song, Baby Got Back by Sir Mix-A-Lot. Since it’s a cover song, I need to get the rights to use it. I found a really easy and affordable way to license the music! But, I also found a giant and annoying snag in regards to YouTube. A snag so big it makes me a bit resentful of the music industry’s antiquated ways.

First, I licensed the song through a service called LimeLight. I thought it would be a pain, but it only took me minutes to set up! Five minutes and $30 later, I can now legally sell this cover song.

However, this only covers me up to 25 downloads and 100 streams (like on Spotify or Last.fm). When I go over those limits, I need to go back to LimeLight and pay more in royalties. LimeLight allows you to purchase more than just the 25 downloads, but I wanted the simplest and smallest package. I might increase this if I see success with promoting my cover. Also, I think it’s only a one-time fee of $15, so my future renewals won’t cost as much.

Here’s the pain-in-the-ass snag: The license doesn’t cover YouTube. Since YouTube is video, you need a synchronization license.

That should be easy, right? Wrong. You need to contact the publisher. In this case, it’s Universal Music Group Publishing. I went to their site and was presented with a rather intimidating form asking me what my “music budget” was. My budget is zero!

I did a little more research, and it turns out that getting a synch license like this will cost a boat-load of money. They are used to licensing to major films and commercials; not a broke band wanting to do a cover tune. For a song like “Baby Got Back”, I’m sure they would want about $10,000 for the synch license.

It turns out this process is so broken, bands just ignore the synch license and upload their covers to YouTube anyways. Rarely does a publisher sue a band to take down the video, but it can happen. This can also get your YouTube account suspended. Though, this is still unlikely as publishers like the publicity for their music. However, you are still exposed to this risk.*

* Research from Sue Basko’s blog: Cover Songs on YouTube

So why the hell isn’t there a simple YouTube synch license? I want the original artist to get their money. I want to do things the legal and correct way. Why, in an industry railing against piracy and licensing violations, am I not given the option to do the right thing?

I’m going to create the video and upload it anyway. If others have done it, I can do it, too. And, since I’m paying royalties for my recorded version, I don’t think I’ll be targeted. (Fingers crossed.)

But, back to the normal, non-video license. I want to give away my cover song in exchange for people signing up to my email list. It turns out, even with a free download, you still have to pay the royalties. Once I go over 25 downloads, I have to go back and pay more. That’s a bit of a bummer, but it might be worth it for email leads.

To drive that point home, you still need to pay royalties even when you give the song away for free!

Finally, here’s the mandatory disclaimer. I’m not an entertainment lawyer. The above information is solely my personal experience. This is my first attempt at getting licenses for a cover song. If you enter into these gray, murky waters of rights and royalties, I’d highly recommend consulting with an entertainment attorney. It’s pricey, but it’s cheaper than getting sued!

I hope this helps! I see quite a few bands recording and selling cover songs without getting the rights to do so. It’s extremely easy and cheap to do the right thing on LimeLight. Wouldn’t you want your royalties if another band covered your tune?



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19 thoughts on “Will I Get Sued on YouTube? Licensing a Cover Song

  • Dymrip

    I’ve posted on here several times before, and I’ve been following your site for a while now as well.

    Gradually, I became curious about your band, Shiplosion. I checked out a few of the videos you posted from your first show, and I was intrigued. However, now that I just watched your cover of Baby Got Back, I’m a full-fledged fan of the band! You guys really tore it up!

    One of my previous bands did something like this with Murder was the Case by Snoop Dogg. (I was going to post a link to it you YouTube, but I must have taken the video down because I couldn’t find it.)

    Also, I would like to add something to a post from a guy in a previous thread. He mentioned the band name looking like SHIPlosion, rather than SHIplosion. I thought this the first time I saw the band name as well. My idea was, maybe add like a cartoony looking dust cloud, or a jagged bubble looking thing (i.e. the Beavis & Butthead logo), behind the band name. Anything that looks like an explosion to sort of hint more at the PLOSION part of the name.

    • Chris "Seth" Jackson Post author

      Haha! Baby Got Back was fun, and I know people love it. But that damn song is stuck in my head every day, now. It’s driving me a little insane!

      I love that song by Snoop. I haven’t heard it in years! Yeah, YouTube can take down songs on a whim. Usually, they notify the uploader to take the video down voluntarily. But, they can react quickly if the publisher/synch-owner requests a takedown.

      Regarding the Shiplosion naming. Yeah, I get that a bit. I do have logos that have a cartoonish explosion with them. Still, people think I’m talking about a ship. Which, honestly, is fine with me. :) It’s one of those things that you have to know my band to actually “get it”. Probably not the most promotional-friendly names I could have chosen, but the name still makes me laugh. But, it comes up really easy on Google! There’s no confusion on my band name itself.

      My last band had the worst, most SEO unfriendly name ever: THE THEM. Those two keywords are ignored by Google. A really bad choice, there.

      I appreciate your comments, Dymrip! Thank you so much!

  • Wicked D

    Yeah, the whole Youtube synchronization thing, or any video/film synch, for that matter, depends on how cool the copyright owner is.

    The bottom line – there’s no statutory right to a synchronization license! A songwriter/publisher/rights holder can decide whether or not they want to let you have a synch license, and if so, how much they want to charge you. In reality, they grant some people a license and others not. They may also charge one person more than another. It’s totally at their discretion.

    I found this out a few years ago, when I represented a band that wanted to cover and do a video for Ghostbusters, but was told by the publisher that Ray Parker Jr only dealt with major record labels. I wrote a letter in response, suggesting that Ray get with the times. 😉

    Maybe you should seek advice from Pomplamoose. Hell, they have Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” on video, as well as a slew of other cover songs!

    • Chris "Seth" Jackson Post author

      Bob Baker had Pomplamoose on his podcast, and they discussed licensing. However, they conveniently avoided synch licensing on YouTube.

      I emailed Sir Mix-a-lot letting him know I’d be doing a YouTube video of his song and translating the views to interactive streaming royalties on Limelight. Also, I let him know that I’d take it down if he didn’t approve. I haven’t heard back from him, but who knows?

      Haha! I’m sure Ray Parker Jr really appreciated the letter! haha!

  • Marc

    It’s funny, we have a worse situation with youtube right now. Our band has a digital distribution deal with JMD Records/INgrooves/UMG. I guess the INgrooves part of the label monitors youtube and has taken away our right to monetize our own songs. I haven’t gotten a response from the label yet, and youtube has made their end complicated.

    We’re not breaking any sales records right now, but still I’m not looking to get out of our distribution deal just yet, so I don’t wanna ruffle feathers at the label.

    Now I’m a little confused by all this because people just take songs, and make silly videos and post on youtube all day…. monetized with ads! I thought there was some type of right to post the music for commenting etc as long as you’re not profiting from it.

    Who knows the real laws? I guess we find out on a need to know basis.

    • Marc

      Thanks to Chris responding to me, he got my blood going so I took stronger action. Got my youtube permissions back. Turns out the record co was protecting interests and didn’t know the channels in question were mine.

      Till then check us out at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Fools-on-Sunday/213115441602 but don’t be stealin’ :-)

      I still don’t know how these people take say a Black Sabbath album, make videos, post them AND monetize them . Got believe when the views are in the millions ,they’re gettin some decent dough out of it.

  • Alfredo

    Thank you for sharing your experience with us. I am in the same position than you, now I have recorded a cover of Jumpin Jack Flash and a videoclip and obtaining a mechanical license as you say it´s easy but a synch license of ABKCO records I think it is more difficult, they are there for making money no charity. As you say, many covers are on Youtube and I think that the publishers do nothing because they will get nothing if they sue an individual that has not much assets of made enough profit. They will sue you if they really have strong options of getting your money.

    I would like to know from you, and thank you in advance, your experience of posting the cover in Youtube. On another hand, I have read last days that some publishers, including Abkco, had signed an agreement with Youtube for sharing the advertisement incomes, does this means that they are changing the strategy with the cover on Youtube? And finally, do you have any idea of how much money could they charge you for a synch license for Youtube. Congratulations for your site.

    • Chris "Seth" Jackson Post author

      Hey, Alfredo! I’m not a lawyer, so I really can’t say someone would or would not sue you simply because you don’t have the money!

      Yes, YouTube is trying to work with certain rights-holders to monetize songs uploaded. Some of them are fine with this. Others will not. Still, if you haven’t got synch permissions, you are still in violation.

      The money can vary greatly. I’ve heard of $50,000 to $100,000 for particular songs. However, I’ve also heard that publishers will grant synch rights for a cover tune on YouTube for promotional purposes. Ask them if you can do this for your cover tune. Especially if you are linking back to the original YouTube video you are covering and providing credit to the original artist.

      The waters are murky around this. The correct and legal thing to do is get permissions. Beyond that, it can range from being ignored to being sued. It’s up to the publisher.

      • Dan Wright

        I’ve also heard that publishers will grant synch rights for a cover tune on YouTube for promotional purposes. Ask them if you can do this for your cover tune. Especially if you are linking back to the original YouTube video you are covering and providing credit to the original artist.

        Great tip! I think that’s the best takeaway for me. My strategy for covers will be to try get the synch rights via that method and if no luck, repeat the process for another cover I wish to have on YouTube.

        It might even be a good idea to do this process first and, only if able to acquire synch rights for a cover, then go about acquiring the mechanical license, record the cover, set it up for CD/download, make the video, etc. This way, one knows right upfront they’d have the benefit of the exposure YouTube provides for promoting the cover. I’d much rather put the efforts into a cover I’ve already gotten the OK for re: YouTube than find out after the fact that I don’t have rights to put it on YouTube. (That said, if there’s a cover I just really want to do for some reason, I’d still go ahead and get the mech license so I could offer it, even with the understanding that promoting it via YouTube is not going to be an option).

        Thanks for this informative article and the great site!

        • Chris "Seth" Jackson Post author

          YouTube is such a murky place for sync rights and monetization on cover tunes. Personally, I don’t think it’s the same as using a song in a movie or commercial. It should have a simple licensing structure the same as Songtrust, Limelight, and Harry Fox offers for mechanical royalties.

          Plus, there’s the whole thing about monetizing your own publishing rights for your original tunes on YouTube. Murky waters for sure.

  • Howlin' Waters

    This may have changed, but I thought you had to go to The Harry Fox Agency in NY to get the license for a cover song (mechanical license). I got one from them a long time ago for a song I wanted to cover. You may want to check with them re the song you’re recording. They may be able to deliver audio and video licensing to you in one shot. Worth checking out.


    Best regards,

    Howlin’ Waters

    • Chris "Seth" Jackson Post author

      No. Harry Fox and Songtrust only give you licenses for recording songs. You need to get different permission to put music in a video form.

      Hopefully there’s a new type of licensing that would allow this in online video formats. Until then, you need to contact the publisher/rights owner of the music.

  • Guitar Picker

    Seens the easiest thing to do then is to record and market a song you wrote yourself.
    That way YOU own the copyright and no problems re: royalites on YouToobie,