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Cover Songs vs Originals: What Counts As Copyright Infringement in Music?

How to Detect Copyright Infringements from Cover Songs


As arguably the most universally-appreciated facet of wider culture, music has the power to transcend barriers and inspire people all around the world. Any one song can resonate with those living in a completely different part of the world than it was created in; a place with different values, traditions and tastes. In many cases, one’s emotional association with a song can compel them to reimagine it in an entirely new context, and this is usually referred to as a “cover song”.

Creative output within the music industry is often compartmentalized as either a "cover song" or "original composition." But what exactly defines a cover song, and how much freedom is there in terms of releasing & distributing them? In this blog post, we will delve into the world of music to unravel the differences between these two terms and explore what could potentially represent copyright infringement concerning them.

The Difference in Definition Between Original Compositions & Cover Songs

Original compositions are entirely new songs created by an artist/group; songs that have not been previously recorded or performed by anyone else and are therefore the true creative expressions of the artist's thoughts, emotions, and experiences. Original songs offer a unique opportunity for artists to showcase their songwriting skills and musical creativity, creating a ripple effect of inspiration that provokes fans to be drawn to “covering” it.

Conversely, a cover song can be best described as a new performance or recording of an existing song, performed by a different artist or band than the original creator. While the cover may incorporate changes to the tempo, key, arrangement, or even lyrics, in order to fit the tastes or intention of the new performer, the fundamental underlying composition remains the same. For example, a fan may choose to cover “Rolling in the Deep” by Adele, but move the key from C minor to B minor, replace the dense instrumentation with just an acoustic guitar, and add a new verse. Various facets of the song’s performance have changed, but its inherent identity and musical fingerprint haven’t.

Can Cover Songs be Released Without Copyright Infringement?

While the world of music is vast and diverse - offering both established artists and up-and-coming talents a range of opportunities to showcase their creativity - it’s vital to tread the legal line carefully. Any newfound cover is inherently derivative of an “original” piece by definition so, no matter how different the cover is, it is vulnerable from a copyright standpoint. Therefore, it’s important to take precautions in order to avoid legal issues. But what are these precautions?

To legally release a cover song on popular music platforms such as Spotify or Apple Music, the artist must obtain what is known as a "mechanical license" from the original writer or publisher of the song; a legal requirement to ensure that the original creators receive appropriate compensation for the work which inspired this new cover song. These licenses enable artists to use, re-record, and distribute the original composition, provided they adhere to the agreed terms and conditions. Depending on the artist, song & persons involved, the ease with which a mechanical license can be secured varies and, in some cases, one can be almost impossible to attain. If one can’t be attained, it will be impossible to release the cover with any legal protection whatsoever.

It's worth noting that live covers, which are performed during live concerts and not released on digital service providers (DSPs) like Spotify or Apple Music, typically do not require a mechanical license. However, artists should be cautious and ensure that their live performances also do not infringe on copyright laws as, for every show in the modern day, thousands of clips from shows are uploaded to user-generated content (UGC) platforms.

How to Detect Copyright Infringements from Cover Songs: CoverNet by MatchTune

Every single day, a significant number of covers that have not obtained a mechanical license are uploaded to DSPs, as well as user-generated content (UGC) platforms such as YouTube.Very often, these are monetized and thus collect revenue for the infringing creator, leaving the original composer completely in the dark financially. So, how can you detect copyright infringements that occur from cover songs?

Well, there’s only one industry tool that can take this task on; CoverNet by MatchTune. CoverNet meticulously scans all music streaming & sharing platforms for obscure infringements of your musical copyright, including cover songs, AI deepfakes and regular one-to-one uses of your master. This platform, unveiled just last month, is capable of returning tens of millions of dollars every year to rights-holders, ensuring that creators are fairly compensated for their artform. Delivering real-time updates in a customizable interface, CoverNet is tipped to become the industry’s new primary solution for detecting & flagging all contemporary music copyright infringements.

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