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If a Person Sings an Existing Song(Cover), Does He Own The Copyright To The Music He Created From It?

New York, NY |

I want to use a song that is sang by someone that is not the original singer(cover song). Does he own the copyright to his version of the song?

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Attorney answers 7

Best Answer

There are two or three copyrights in any song performance, one to the composition (music and lyrics), one to the sound recording, and if not a cover, one to the particular rendition. The latter two need permission of the composition copyright owner. The third may need permission of the sound recording copyright owner, if the third is not doing a "cover" (rendition with no additional creativity).

You are talking about the third of the three, so yes the performer of the new rendition owns a copyright to that new rendition, but that new rendition cannot be legally performed without a license to the underlying composition. And, if the new rendition is based on an earlier version (either original singer or cover singer) then the new rendition is a derivative work and needs permission of the version upon which it is based. If one of the versions is a true cover, then there might be no separate copyright to that cover performer due to lack of the requisite creativity.

So, you're not real clear as to whether the person in question is merely doing a true cover (no separate copyright) or a new rendition (a copyright, but a derivative work subservient to the original composition copyright). The one you call a "cover song" might have sufficient creativity to have its own copyright. For example, both Trisha Yearwood and Lee Ann Rimes have very popular versions of the Con Air theme song "How Do I Live", and has a copyright on their sound recording and each gets royalties when their version is played. Generally each singer adds something unique and that results in a separate sound recording copyright. So, odds are that cover singer has a separate sound recording copyright.

If this is not clear to you, then you need to see a music industry attorney (Entertainment law attorney or copyright attorney) for review or speak with a representative of the appropriate PRO.

I am not your lawyer and you are not my client. Free advice here is without recourse and any reliance thereupon is at your sole risk. This is done without compensation as a free public service. I am licensed in IL, MO, TX and I am a Reg. Pat. Atty. so advice in any other jurisdiction is strictly general advice and should be confirmed with an attorney licensed in that jurisdiction.

David M. Slater

David M. Slater


Hi Bruce: I may have a slight issue with your statement, "The latter two need permission of the composition copyright owner." With respect to a party recording a songwriter's composition that has been published, I don't think the party needs the songwriter's permission, and can rely on a compulsory mechanical license to do that.


Your question is very confusing. More information is needed to answer, as you did not indicate whether you intend to record your own cover of the original composition, or sample the recoding of the cover version. Also, this forum is not for giving legal advice, but just general guidance. I strongly suggest you consult with an entertainment attorney in your area. Having said that, the copyright in the original composition belongs to the composer(s), unless transferred to someone else, and you cannot re-record you own cover version without paying royalties to the composer. The copyright in the master recording of the cover version is separate and most likely owned by whatever label originally released it. If you intend to sample the sound recording of the cover version, then you need a master use license and will have to pay for that, as well as pay royalties to the songwriters. Two copyrights, two payments. Get help,


Copyright is divided into six exclusive rights. One of them is the performance right. The performance right to a particular version of a song may lie with the original copyright holder, or with the person that performed the version. No matter what, you need permission to be able to perform the copyrighted work, or to "use" the copyrighted work in something you are creating.

If you aren't sure who owns the copyright, there are ways you can check. The best option to license this work for your purposes would be to meet with an entertainment attorney with experience in copyright licensing.

This does not constitute legal advice or the engagement of my services as an attorney.


The simple answer to your question is yes. If I perform a version of someone's song, a copyright affixes automatically in my arrangement of that song, assuming there were sufficient creative and unique elements apart from the original. I also have a copyright in my sound recording of that.

If you want to use that version, you will likely have to get a performance license for the underlying work (ASCAP or BMI) as well as permission from the artist that lays claim to their unique version.

I suggest that you consult with a lawyer in private and discuss your objectives in more detail. You can start by calling around to several for a free phone consultation, get some insights then pick the best fit to work with.

Best regards,
Natoli-Lapin, LLC

DISCLAIMER: this is not intended to be specific legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. No attorney-client relationship is formed with the law firm of Natoli-Lapin, LLC on the basis of this posting.


Any recording involves 2 separate copyrights: the musical composition copyright, and the sound recording copyright:

1. The first copyright is the copyright of the musical composition you are recording. The music publisher of that composition will continue to own the composition copyright, no matter who records it, and no matter how many different artists record it. You must obtain a mechanical license from that publisher in order to use that composition in your new recording. You will have no ownership rights in that MUSICAL COMPOSITION copyright.

2. The second copyright is the SOUND RECORDING copyright in your new recording, which is separate from the musical composition mentioned above. You or your record company will own that SOUND RECORDING copyright, i.e., the copyright in your particular recording.

Example: Bob Dylan writes a song. His publishing company owns the musical composition copyright. If 100 different artists then record that song, then each of them (or their record companies, as the case may be) will own a SOUND RECORDING copyright in their own particular recording.

So there's 1 musical composition copyright no matter how many people later record it. Then, using the example above, there's 100 separate sound recording copyrights.

The above is not intended as legal advice and does not constitute the creation of an attorney-client relationship, as this forum does not provide for a confidential communication. Furthermore, the attorney's answer above is intended to be general information only, and there may be facts not contained in the question which could change the answer, so the answer above should not be relied upon without first obtaining legal advice from your own attorney.


There are 2 copyrights for any piece of recorded music. One is the composition copyright (also called the musical works or work of the performing arts copyright). The composition copyright is ownershio the six rights inherent in copyright ownership (reproduction, distribution, public display, perform, perform digitally, and derivative) as associated with the song's music and lyrics. To record a cover of a song is to create a derivative. The other copyright is called the sound recording copyright - the same rights as above, but for a particular recording. Thus, you'd have to license that right from the composition owner by taking out a compulsory mechanical license - they have to allow it and you have to pay the statutory mechanical royalty rate. Once you have this legal authorization, you can create your own sound recording. You'd own the copyright to that specific recording. Theoretically, there could be several sound recordings owned by different copyright owners for any single composition copyright. Depending on the use, you'd have to get permission to use the sound recording for the cover as well as separate permission from the composition copyright owner for the underlying composition.


I agree that your question is a bit hard to answer, but I think that that this is not a copyright issue. My understanding is that you are asking if a "cover" version of a song can be protected by copyright. In other words, whether the distinctive nature of the performance, rather than the underlying composition, is independently protected by copyright. For example, "Over the Rainbow" is one of the most recognizable songs of all times. It has also been covered from artists from Ella to the Ramones. So let's say you'd like to record or perform "Over the Rainbow" by copying the vocal intonations of Joey Ramone. As a practical matter, you'd probably get away with it, assuming you satisfied the underlying copyrights which have fully explained by other attorneys. On the other hand, Bette Midler was able to successfully sue Ford Motor Company for intentionally attempting to duplicate her song styling and vocal intonation in a TV commercial. However, her suit was not based on copyright but on her common law claim that her voice was a distinctive to her. There are a lot of artists who have been "inspired" by others. Even the Beatles copied the harmonies of the Everly Bros and Clapton imitated Bob Marley's vocal intonation in "I Shot the Sheriff". You're not Ford Motor Company, and there are a ton of Classic Rock "Tribute Bands" out there performing every night, so I believe you'll be ok as long as you respect the underlying copyright in the original composition. Hope this helps you!

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