What permission is needed to publicly perform a cover song?

September 3, 2013

Dear Music Lawyer,

My granddaughter performs cover songs mostly from traditional country artists. What does she need to do to be doing this correctly as far as performing copyrighted songs?


Dear Ken,

In the United States, a copyright holder has the exclusive right to publicly perform his musical composition (or song). Since, as a practical matter, it would be difficult for a copyright holder to find out all the places that his songs are being performed, he will typically affiliate with a performing rights organization (ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC) to license and track the public performances of his songs. The performing rights organization will collect licensing monies from the licensees on behalf of their affiliated songwriters/publishers and distribute monies to the songwriters/publishers based on their calculated number of public performances. Licensees include nightclubs/bars, music halls, radio stations, retail stores, shopping malls, amusement parks, hotels, airports, universities, and many others.

Note: Songwriters may only affiliate with one performing rights organization at a time. Therefore, each of the performing rights organizations has a distinct music catalog, and the various licensees must typically secure licenses from ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC to have the right to publicly perform the wide variety of songs that make up American music.

As long as your granddaughter is performing the cover songs in public places that have been properly licensed by the songwriter's performing rights organization, then she should not have to worry about merely performing those songs in public. In other words, public performance licensing is not normally something that the performer has to handle unless the venue specifically requires the performer to obtain a public performance license. In my experience, that's most common in a one-time choral or orchestral setting.

However, if she wants to make a recording of her performance, then there are additional considerations and additional licenses may be needed (e.g., mechanical licenses for audio-only works like CDs or synchronization licenses for audiovisual works like DVDs).

—Amy E. Mitchell

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