The Right to Copy: Cover Songs and Copyright on YouTube (Presentation)

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Research Purposes

  • Analysis and critique of current copyright system
  • How current copyright laws affect song covers posted on YouTube
  • How YouTube covers can help and hinder artistic creativity and promote music careers

An Introduction to Cover Songs

  • Cover song (1952): “trade jargon meaning to record a tune that looks like a potential hit on someone else’s label” (Leonard 1952: A4)
  • Cover songs differed from earlier practices of reproducing sheet music in a public performance setting
  • Don McLean: a cover song is a performance by an artist of an older, previously-performed work of another artist (McLean 2004)
  • Many early covers were “white” versions of songs recorded by black musicians that would not receive airplay on white radio stations without being altered to be more stylistically accessible

Three types of covers

  • Altering the original with stylistic changes (genre, vocal arrangement, instrumentation, etc.)
  • Exact, “note-for-note” covers
  • Tributes: often similar to original artist, with alterations that suit the cover artist’s style

The Current State of Copyright Law

  • Artists cannot copyright their style of performance, but do have copyrights over a song’s musical composition and their performance of the song
  • To cover a song, artists need a mechanical license to distribute music digitally or physically, and a synchronization license if a visual element is added (YouTube video, TV synch, etc.)
    • Mechanical license fees are compulsory: the Harry Fox Agency sets fees and copyright holders cannot prohibit artists from covering them if they have paid the compulsory fee
    • Synchronization licenses are agreed upon between publishers and users: copyright holders can set their own fees and approve or deny individual cover requests
  • Fair use does not cover YouTube covers as there is no transformative use of the original material

YouTube’s Content ID System

  • System created in 2007 to auto-identify instances of copyright infringement
  • Content ID allows copyright owners to monetize, block, or track infringing content
  • Uploaders receive one strike on their account per case of infringement and have their accounts terminated upon their third strike
  • YouTube and publishers have settled on blanket synchronization licenses, an opt-in program that allows publishers to take up to 50% of the revenue from songs to which they own the rights

Case Studies

Cover songs have become a prevalent part of the music industry:

  • Video games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band
  • Competitive reality singing shows like American Idol and The Voice
  • Glee and other television programming featuring cover songs
  • Karaoke performances

Justin Bieber

One of today’s biggest artists, whose career began with covers posted on YouTube

  • Posted first cover of Ne-Yo’s “So Sick” in 2007
  • Covers discovered by hip-hop manager Scooter Braun
  • Signed by Braun along with Usher and L.A. Reid of Island Def Jam
  • Now is one of the most successful artists currently charting on Billboard, with 51 singles and counting

Commercial Felony Streaming Act

  • Bieber used as an example of someone whose career would not exist with stricter copyright legislation
  • Proposed Commercial Felony Streaming Act would have punished copyrighted material on YouTube with a maximum of five years in jail
  • Bill has yet to be enacted, but led to controversial SOPA and PIPA acts

Walk Off The Earth

How a cover can ignite interest in the original as well

  • Covered Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know” using one guitar played by five musicians
  • Video accumulated nearly 50 million views in a month, compared to 65 million on Gotye’s original video uploaded six months earlier
  • Viral success led to record deal with Columbia Records
  • Profit from YouTube’s synchronization license resulted in over $30,000 revenue for the band in under a month


A duo utilizing best practices to maximize viral success

  • First year attempting to break through led to little success: no one cared about their original material and their classic rock covers were not unique
  • Duo worked with manager to pick current and rising singles to cover each week, maximizing search engine optimization
  • Cover of Chris Brown/Lil Wayne/Busta Rhymes’s “Look At Me Now” became an overnight sensation
  • Built a fanbase of over 80,000 email addresses and accumulated $125,000 in digital download sales by the time they signed with Epic Records

Boyce Avenue

One of many successful groups born and bred through YouTube

  • Also began by posting cover songs on YouTube
  • After signing a record deal with Universal Republic for under a year, they ended the deal and continued releasing music independently
  • Many artists use multi-channel networks (MCNs) like Fullscreen and Maker Studios to release and distribute their videos
  • Now claim to be “the most viewed independent band in the world”


  • Cover songs can be an effective, beneficial tool in building an artist’s career, particularly through YouTube
  • YouTube can also be used by major labels as a platform for artist/repertoire (A&R) research
  • Artists need to obtain mechanical and synchronization licenses to legally post their covers, but in doing so, they can successfully profit from the views their covers receive
  • Copyright needs to protect artist rights while not stifling creativity of new artists attempting to express musical ideas
  • Technological processes like Content ID should be perfected to eliminate false positives and keep from unintentionally criminalizing content creators


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