Using someone else’s hit song has often been a way for a new act to get heard.
Covering someone else’s material or song isn’t so much of a problem when performing live, but if you want to record and distribute that song as a record or a download, you’re going to need permission from the song’s publisher.
Starting at the beginning, many musicians won’t understand that there are two copyrights in every ‘record’ – there’s the recording that you make and then there’s the underlying song or composition. Think of that as the thing you could write on manuscript paper as notes and words before a recording even existed. That right is what is owned by the companies that run the other side of the music business – the music publishers.
When you record a cover you’ll own the copyright in that recording but you’re going to need permission to use the song as you don’t own that copyright.
You’ll need something called a Mechanical License. This is the permission you need from the publisher for you to record and distribute the song that they own the rights to.
You may be lucky, and the song you’re considering using may be in the Public Domain. This is what happens after the track is of a certain age and no longer has the protection of copyright, usually 50 or 75 years after the death of the writer. Once this time has passed, the publisher no longer has rights over the song and it is then considered public property. Anyone can cover and record a song that is in the public domain without permission.
The music business has realized that this time period needs to be extended as some of the earliest pop and rock ‘n’ roll catalogue are now getting to that age where they won’t be protected by copyright and so you wouldn’t need a mechanical license. So it always good to check! Once you know who the publisher is, you can then apply for a mechanical license.
[Reprinted From: http://makingmusicmag.com]