The Legal Ramification of Covering Songs
by ALIS volunteer: Marina Bruggerman
From the small town band, to tribute bands, to the most popular pop ensemble of the day, almost every musical group has played a song or two that was written by another artist. Covering songs has become a staple of our music industry. Some bands may play a song every now and then as a tribute to their favorite musicians while others create an entire set list featuring the works of others. It is such a common practise that many may not turn their minds to the legal ramifications of performing an artistic work to which they do not hold copyright.
When a song is created, a musician or song writer immediately has copyright in her work. The copyright need not be registered for that musician to be entitled to those rights. The copyright extends to the lyrics of a song as well as to the music which accompanies those lyrics. Copyright owners, whether this a particular musician or a publisher or recording company, has the right to control the distribution and copying of their work. As a result, it is usually illegal to reproduce or copy a song in any way without permission from the copyright holder.
In Canada, there are of course exceptions. As set out in the Copyright Act, if a song is reproduced for research, private study, education, parody, satire, criticism or review, the reproduction may be considered fair dealing and be exempt from a copyright infringement. Covering a song in a live performance however would hardly fit into any of these categories.
Publically performing the work of another songwriter or recording a covered song for the purposes of sale obligates that musician to pay royalties to the copyright holder. An artist may request that royalties be paid by the venue where the musician is performing, the musician’s agent, or the musician herself. Artists are also able to register their work with a collective. This allows their collective to request payment on their behalf. Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada (or SOCAN), Canadian Musical Reproduction Rights Agency, and Connect Music Licensing are three such collectives in Canada.
Covering songs can be a fun and engaging part of a performance. But it is important to remember that the hard work that was put into creating those songs should be recognized and repaid in due.