17 Jan 2017

What license do I need for my music?


Do you want to release a cover or remix of a song, or use samples in your latest track? We get a lot of questions regarding how artists can release covers, remixes and samples legally, so here’s some handy tips to help you ensure you’re 100% covered.

What license do I need for my music?


How to license cover songs, remixes and samples


Firstly, it’s important to understand the difference between a cover, a remix and a sample, and what licenses are required in each case.


What license do I need for a cover song?

A cover is when you re-record a song using your own instrumentation and vocals. Under copyright law, you cannot alter the underlying melody or arrangement of the original version of the song.

Licence required = Mechanical License for US sales


Some famous examples of covers are:

Jimi Hendrix - ‘All Along The Watchtower’ (Bob Dylan),

Jeff Buckley - ‘Hallelujah’ (Leonard Cohen)

Johnny Cash - ‘Hurt’ (Nine Inch Nails)

Nirvana – ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ (David Bowie)



What license do I need for a remix?

A remix is when you use any element of the original recording and alter the melody, arrangement, style and genre of the original track.

License required = Master Use License for worldwide distribution


Some famous examples include:

Jason Nevins vs Run DMC – ‘It’s Like That’

Justice Vs Simian – ‘We Are Your Friends’

La Roux – ‘Going In For The Kill (Skream Remix)

Bob Marley Vs Funkstar De Luxe – ‘Sun Is Shining’



What license do I need to use samples?

Made famous by hip-hop DJs such as Grandmaster Flash, and further adopted during the early days of electronic music by acts like The Prodigy; samples are when you take a small element of the original sound recording and loop, tweak or alter it to create an entirely new song.

Licenses required = Master Use + Mechanical Licenses for worldwide distribution


Some famous examples include:

Kanye West – ‘Gold Digger’ (Ray Charles - ‘I Got A Woman’)

The Prodigy – ‘Out of Space’ (Max Romeo - ‘Chase The Devil’)

Tupac – ‘California Love’ (Joe Cocker - ‘Woman To Woman’)

Sugarhill Gang – ‘Rapper’s Delight’ (Chic – ‘Good Times’)


DJ Shadow’s debut album, ‘Entroducing’, was one of the first albums to be recorded almost entirely with the use of samples. The album was recorded using hundreds of samples overlapping each other to create new and interesting arrangements. The Avalanches did a similar thing with their seminal album, ‘Since I Left You’, albeit in a more dance-worthy fashion to DJ Shadow.



How does copyright work in music?


Now that we know the differences between covers, remixes and samples, let’s look at some other areas of copyright: 

How does copyright work and what do the copyright symbols mean?

Copyright © - in terms of music, refers to the copyright in the lyrics and melody

Phonographic â„— - stands for the phonographic copyright, in other words, the copyright in the sound recording.

The owners of these copyrights is dependent on who commissioned the work. If you’re an independent artist, aka not signed to a label, then you own all the above copyrights. If you are signed, often these are owned by the publishers or labels, depending on how the deal is carved out.


How do I register my own copyright?

That depends entirely on where in the world you live. In countries like Australia and the UK, copyright is automatically created when the work is, so long as you can prove you created the work, you’re all good to go. However, in the US, it is recommended that you register your copyright with the US Copyright Office. For other countries, it’s best that you do a Google search for your local copyright laws, to ensure you understand your rights as an artist or label.


How do I release a cover of someone else’s work?

Firstly, it’s important to note you only need to purchase licenses if you’re distributing your cover in the US. This is because they do not have a royalty collection agency that deals with mechanical royalties (the name given to artists’ music that has been reproduced digitally, physically (CDs/Vinyl) etc.) such as AMCOS in Australia, or the MCPS in the UK. So, you only need mechanical licenses for covers distributed to the US.


How do I ensure that I have done everything correctly under copyright law?

In order to ensure everything is above board and you are protected from any potential legal action from copyright holders, follow these important steps…

a) Identify the original songwriter, publisher or label aka the owner of the copyright. To do this, search on the various copyright databases such as BMI, ASCAP, SESAC, US Copyright Office or Harry Fox. It’s worth noting that in most instances (well, for signed artists), the copyright owner is the publisher. Labels rarely own the copyright in the composition, but usually own the copyright in the sound recording, so make sure you get the publisher name, not the label.

b) Be sure to ascertain the correct version of the song you are releasing, as there are hundreds of songs called ‘Fantasy’, ‘Alive’, ‘Lies’ etc.

c) Send a letter of intent. This can be a tiring exercise, but thankfully, most companies that you purchase licenses from do this when you purchase the licenses. Just be sure to purchase the licenses at least 30 days before the release date of your cover/s.


What should the metadata of my track look like?

Let’s say you’re releasing a cover of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, it should look pretty much like this:


Where can I purchase music licenses?

You can purchase Mechanical Licenses through Songfile (Harry Fox). Master Use Licenses are typically much harder to acquire, as you'll need to obtain them with the permission of the original copyright holder of the sound recording.


Please note, purchasing licenses after the cover has already been released, makes the licenses invalid. However, it is better than not having it at all and may safeguard you legally if copyright holders come knocking at your door.



Do you have any questions about music licensing and copyright not covered in this article? Let us know in the comments below and share this essential info with your friends!