How Can You Tell If Uploading Your Cover Song To YouTube Is Infringing? You Can't

from the broken-systems dept

If there is such a thing as a functioning copyright system, one of its tenets should be that it is quite easy to know if what you’re doing is infringement. Of course, as we’ve discovered over and over again, people infringe unkowingly all the time — and it’s not just because of negligence or ignorance. Often it’s because it’s simply impossible to figure it out. Take, for example, the quite common practice of uploading a cover of a song to YouTube. This happens all the time. Lots of people record themselves singing popular songs and put them on YouTube. According to Andy Baio, about 12,000 such cover songs are uploaded each day. Justin Bieber became Justin Bieber because of some YouTube videos of him singing someone else’s songs.

But is that breaking the law?

Andy Baio dug into that question and discovered that it’s almost impossible to determine that. Now, if you’re merely recording a cover song for release, there are compulsory/mechanical license fees you can use. This is why you see cover songs on albums all the time. They’re not done with “permission,” but rather because someone paid the compulsory rate set by the government. The problem, however, is when you add video to the mix. Once you’re talking about a video with music, a second license has to be secured: the sync license. And there are no compulsory rates with sync licenses — meaning that the copyright holder can (and often does) demand exorbitant fees if they even respond to your request at all.

Now, as Baio notes, Google did sign a deal with the National Music Publishers Association to allow publishers to join a program where they get some money in exchange for allowing their songs to be played by others on YouTube. But no one knows whose publishing rights are actually covered by that agreement, meaning that it’s effectively useless.

The end result? It’s likely that a rather large number of the cover song videos uploaded each day are infringing — potentially opening up the uploaders to huge statutory fines for violating copyright law. This is a clear sign of where the law is broken. The law clearly wasn’t mean for these kinds of situations, and it’s easily fixable. Baio makes the point that here’s an easy reform to copyright law that would decriminalize a very common behavior:

The real question: Why is it illegal in the first place?

Cover songs on YouTube are, almost universally, non-commercial in nature. They’re created by fans, mostly amateur musicians, with no negative impact on the market value of the original work. (If anything, it increases demand by acting as a free promotional vehicle for the track.)

The best solution is the hardest one: To reform copyright law to legalize the distribution of free, non-commercial cover songs.

Copyright law was intended to foster creativity by making it safe for creators to exclusively capitalize on their work for a limited period of time. Cover songs on YouTube don’t threaten that ability, and may actually prevent new works by chilling talent that could go on to do great things.

Seems like a simple enough thing to fix… which is why it’s unlikely to actually happen.

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Comments on “How Can You Tell If Uploading Your Cover Song To YouTube Is Infringing? You Can't”

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Robert (profile) says:


Doesn’t a cover count as a reproduction?

The FBI warnings on movies are similar, no reproduction, duplication (whole or part), etc..

Don’t you need permission to cover, even if non-commercial?

SOCAN thinks so. Any song in their repetoir requires a license and collection of fees based on ticket sale percentage or minimum, depending on which is greater (their website). Yes, venues can sign deals, I am just telling you what’s on SOCAN’s site (as I looked it up for my wedding, they wanted $40 for SOCAN music and even the venue would not know that my unregistered songs were not SOCAN licensed and no fee was applicable).

Hell, if I register with SOCAN and perform my own songs, SOCAN expects a percentage of the performance ticket sales. Do you honestly think they’ll give that back in full to me?

If you do covers, it is understandable, you are playing others’ music and therefore they deserve the small percentage SOCAN estimates.

I could be wrong, but this is what SOCAN has on their website, or did back in 2010.

Anonymous Coward says:

Devil's Advocate Time

How unlike the “original” does a cover have to be to fail to qualify as a cover?

What qualities are judged to ascertain a cover (sound, words, emotion, sales?).

Yotub is just one of latest nervous mouthpieces. There will be more and they will fade. And then the more will fade as more come forth. And do on. So who is the ultimate arbitrator (not for ‘merica, but for all existence)?

Does the ancient british invention of copyright extend beyond the planet? The solar system? The Milky Way? The Universe? How far? Says who?

If you cover a successful cover of an unsuccessful song and there are several other unsuccessful covers, who has the right to sue?

Why does it always come down to non-entities (politicians), lawyers and courts? Would the world be better off without them?

At what point in history did or will mankind stop creating?

Is this just an adjustment period?

When will it all end?

Anonymous Coward says:

Why stop at cover songs?

How about we take it further and remove the derivative works clause entirely? That would solve a whole bunch of these kinds of issues.

In my opinion the derivative works clause is probably the most problematic part of the copyright package. A derivative work is a separate product from the original work. I don’t see any economic justification for blocking them.

pixelpusher220 (profile) says:


If you’re making the music it’s not a copy, but you playing the same music so I would say no it’s not a ‘copy’ or duplication.

Now if you’re stripping the audio straight off the music and voicing over it, maybe, perhaps, but then again it’s not a song but a video at least in this case so you aren’t ‘copying’ the original but transforming it.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Cover song better than the original?

I can think of a number of examples of exactly that, where the cover was much superior to the original. I can also think a few examples where it’s the cover that became the big hit and the original is all but forgotten.

In either case, the songwriter would still be due royalties and so would still be capitalizing. Maybe. If you can figure out the actual rules.

Anonymous Coward says:

Proposal: A SIMPLE test of infringement

Does your action enrich the old school monopolists, gatekeeper, and collection societies in the manner they are accustomed to being enriched?

If it’s money that’s not easy for them to see how they’re being enriched because they’ve never been enriched in that way they probably won’t even correctly recognize when they are being enriched.

Anonymous Coward says:

To me the primary problem is that Youtube is earning money on advertisement. The RIAA and MPAA can smell that, but they are confused by how little money is making that much smell. That is why the sites are getting sued to hell and not the users + it is why ISPs are getting told to “close access to” them.

The AA’s think of every person as a certain amount of money no matter the medium. They are moving away from that, but too slow to bring legal alternatives to the interwebs. They still haven’t understood that they need the legal businesses on the net to thrive to be able to fight piracy on the net efficiently.

“Having a monopoly in Florida and extorting and/or bribing local politicians there will not have much effect on laws in California.”

Milton Freewater says:


I don’t know that the primary problem is Youtube earning money on advertisements. All content creators want to fight plagarists on principle. Plagarism (intellectual property theft) dilute the value of your work, if nothing else.

The problem is the decision to treat a cover version as a plagarized work. It’s a derivative work, and a creator of a derivative work has some rights too.

To me, two changes would be ideal: government-set royalties for works that profit less than a set amount, and the creator of the secondary work (when flagged) given the choice to pay the fee or take it down, with the work left online in the balance.

The Infamous Joe (profile) says:

Put money directly beneath their nose

We keep hearing about how, without copyright protection, all we would get is amateur shit, not even worth watching. This implies that only the old guard can make things worth anything. So, if “amateur” art can’t compete, then it shouldn’t harm the market for their media.

They should put their money where their mouth is, if anything “amateur” is so far beneath them, then there is obviously no harm in allowing it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Why stop at cover songs?

Same AC here.

Derivative works are a very important thing. People build on each other’s ideas. It’s how human culture has always worked for thousands of years.

Now pretty much the entire twentieth century is presumed illegal to tap into for that purpose. All thanks to intellectual property.

People who think they can release their works to the outside world and still keep absolute control are overestimating themselves. Those who think they’re entitled to crush the evolution of culture are wrong.

Ian Walker says:


I’ve read from top to bottom on this (including comments) trying to get some insight as I wish to start a music channel on YouTube somewhere in the near future and have been set back quite a bit as I would have started off doing covers to try gain an audience but to be honest I’m absolutely clueless now, I don’t know how it works? The bigger YouTube cover artists like Tyler Ward, Alex Goot etc. Would they make money from the covers they produce or must they pay to do them? I’m much more confused than I was before I read this..

Katy says:


I, too, am in your same situation, Ian! I wanted to make acoustic covers similar to The Piano Guys, but I’ve been stuck plowing through wonderfully confusing world of music licensing. I’ve tried contacting publishing companies about synchronization licenses, and if I’m not ignored entirely, I’ve been quoted a good $2000 a year to post a video. How can a melody that takes maybe 30 minutes to learn by ear cost $2000 to post online??!!? I’ve scratched my head long and hard trying to figure out how big youtubers can post cover versions AND monetize them without getting into trouble (even if they do make enough money to pay $2000 a year for a video, they sure post them much faster than I’ve ever been able to get a reply from the publishing companies! They take a good 6 to 8 months to reply!!…). So far, the only things I’ve learned about are Full Screen and Maker Studios, which seem to be the answer for many cover artists. I believe they both have contracts with Universal Music Publishing (and perhaps a few other publishing companies) which allow people to cover a select list of songs. I would rather find a way to legally post things on my own, but it seems the music industry ignores the majority of the non-famous population. The whole copyright thing is a mess. I wish there were more artists contributing to the Creative Commons. Best of luck with your youtube account! I hope you can figure something out! And if you do, please let me know what you find out, because I’m as confused as you are!

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