Music copyright is complicated — and takedowns, penalties, and lawsuits for copyright infringement are all too common. But 99% of takedowns, penalties, and lawsuits related to copyright violations can be avoided, according to a leading music licensing expert Easy Song.
If the music industry can agree on anything, it’s that copyright-related takedowns, penalties, and lawsuits are distressingly commonplace. Every day, thousands of creators, influencers, and advertisers get slapped with muted videos, legal threats, suspended accounts, or full-blown lawsuits. What starts with an innocent cover song can quickly end with litigation simply because the performer didn’t know the rules.
So what are the most common pitfalls for uploaders, licensors, and creatives to avoid on platforms like TikTok, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, Spotify, and even Netflix? Just recently, Digital Music News joined forces with longtime music licensing authority Easy Song to break down the biggest errors that uploaders and advertisers make —- and how to avoid them.
We found out that most infringement headaches are caused by a relatively small number of errors that can be easily avoided. “We see a lot of the same problems occurring repeatedly,” said Easy Song cofounder Aaron Green.
So what are the biggest copyright errors, and how can you avoid them?
1. Creating and distributing a cover song without the proper licenses.
Musicians rerecording existing works can land in hot water depending on where the song is placed. It doesn’t matter if the performer adhered to the original composition, sang something that ‘sounds like’ the original, or even remixed the track; gaining the correct PRO and mechanical licenses is imperative. This step ensures that copyright is attributed to the relevant artists, with royalties directed to songwriters and publishers of the original track — even when a song is rerecorded and redistributed as a cover song.
It’s also important to remember that publishers are obligated to grant you a license under US copyright law, but if the original song has yet to be commercially released, you won’t be able to distribute the cover song without facing legal issues. Moreover, these cover song licenses typically come with binding terms and conditions. For instance, substantially altering the melody or modifying the lyrics in any way for your published interpretation will require additional permissions.
Let’s go through a few of the most common endpoints for cover song distribution – and the rules and pitfalls for each.
2. Uploading cover songs to Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music, or other DSPs without securing the necessary cover song licenses.
To upload cover songs to any DSP, creators need mechanical licensing approvals. For any cover song published on Amazon, iTunes, Spotify, Bandcamp, and other platforms like Qobuz, these licenses ensure that royalty checks make their way to the rightful owners of the creative asset.
Green says the territory is critical, adding, “In the US, all interactive-audio streaming mechanical reporting is now handled by the MLC. Digital download and physical media audio formats still require direct-to-publisher mechanical song licensing for all cover song releases for US artists.”
3. Sharing videos of cover performances on YouTube without securing authorization licenses.
YouTube offers publishers an ad revenue monetization structure when their compositions are used and record label administrators when master sound recordings are played. But most creators need to be made aware that blanket licenses and deals for YouTube come with constraints. For example, these deals don’t automatically grant any cover song video a legitimate sync license, and creators can quickly receive a monetization or ad revenue claim.
Ultimately, only the publisher can grant official licensing paperwork directly to the creator. However, YouTube will pay public performance royalties for cover song videos to PROs (ASCAP, BMI, SESAC within the US, and international PROs globally).
Green warns that for anyone thinking they got away with monetizing an unlicensed cover song video, there’s a standing risk of facing repercussions. “The rightsholder can, at any time, flag the content and take action. [Because] their intellectual property is used without a proper video sync license.”
4. Creating and publishing derivative works without obtaining the required mechanical and performance rights licenses.
Creators assume that altering an original or using a portion of it means their interpretation is now an ‘original’ and doesn’t require a license before getting published. According to Green, copyright laws safeguard artists even when someone is ‘inspired’ by their work. He adds, “The minute something changes, including language translations or re-arranging portions of a track, that becomes a derivative work.”
The good news is that there’s a license for every kind of derivative work. These mechanical licenses could give users the creative freedom to make alterations in lyrics, composition, or even melody — legally. Green, whose company specializes in these usage scenarios, says screening and identifying approval parties is a critical first step.
5. Using creative properties such as unreleased tracks, music notes, and lyrics for ‘inspired’ derivative works, music interpolations, or for use within any published content.
According to Green, new releases, decades-old tracks, commercially unreleased music, and even music notes and lyrics are protected by copyright laws. The creation of notes or music makes it copyright protected, not the actual release of the creative work. Without a license that permits the usage of such assets, creators are playing with fire.
Regardless of the specific reinterpretation, Green says these music ‘interpolations’ require approvals from the songwriter camp. “When someone creates an original composition using only a verse, bridge, chorus, melody, or a portion of the lyrics, this interpolation requires proper licensing. Discussions could lead to a new work publishing split with the songwriters.”
6. Using copyrighted music for user-generated content uploaded to platforms like TikTok, Snapchat, Twitter, and Instagram.
To varying degrees, all major platforms have blanket licenses for UGC (user-generated content). The mechanism allows creators to generate content for the platforms using copyright-protected music — but it’s not a protection guarantee.
Green emphasizes that these blanket deals and licenses ‘do not supersede copyright laws.’ It’s an important caveat for anyone relying on UGC platforms for revenue or audience building. Even if you’re a viral influencer using music, rights holders can call you out for copyright infringement.
7. Using copyright-protected tracks for advertisements and promotions on social media, DSPs, and other platforms.
User-generated content is mostly permissible on popular platforms, but advertising content is not. Advertisers should not rely on UGC ‘blanket licenses’ for marketing and promotions because these deals simply don’t apply to businesses trying to reach consumers.
Green notes, “The minute there’s branding, production value, or paid media, especially involving top 40 popular music, [copyright owners] can make an example out of you and take you down any time.”
Direct commercial licensing for media rights allows the usage of songs within promotional content. Green explains, “There’s already a market value baseline with rights holders who issue commercial licensing. When a company or creator bypasses this legal step before using copyrighted music, the possible damages and penalty fees mandated by the rights holders can be significant.”
8. Using disclaimers or captions to credit original owners of music assets instead of getting proper licenses.
Posting a shout-out or credit to the owner of the original track doesn’t automatically fit fair use guidelines. Posting disclaimers such as ‘I don’t own rights to this song’ or ‘All credits go to the authors’ still means you’re ripping off rightful copyright holders and using tracks without permission.
These disclaimers achieve nothing for crediting and metadata, and creators reproducing artists’ work still require the proper licensing for all media they’re planning to distribute. These could include mechanical licenses, reproduction licenses, or PRO licenses — depending on how the content will be distributed to the masses.
9. Skipping sync licenses for copyrighted music featured in film, television, or web series production.
Even major production houses and managers sometimes miss the memo and get sued for millions. Using copyrighted music/content for any purpose — film, web, or TV — will require sync licenses, PRO licenses, global distribution rights, or more.
10. Playing copyright-protected songs during theater productions, live parodies, musicals, etc., without the mandatory theatrical/live-stage licenses.
For dramatic performances such as musicals, plays, ballets, and choreographed dance works (featuring dramatic elements, stage sets, and costumes) using copyright-protected music, organizers must gain direct theatrical/live stage licenses from the original publisher.
11. Developing an app or software that plays music or other related musical assets without authorization from the original artists or publishers.
Green says licensing is a two-step process for app developers using copyrighted music. They need direct publishing sync licensing and a blanket PRO license within all territories where users can access the app. “If the aim is to distribute apps legally, developers cannot avoid this process.”
In most cases, software and apps are distributed globally, expanding the number of licenses developers will gain. Depending on the nature and extent of usage, developers might even require publishing sync deals and master sync deals directly with labels and publishers.
Moreover, Green emphasizes that it doesn’t matter if the app is free. Someone out there created a musical asset. Not only do they deserve rightful compensation, but they also reserve the right to decide where and how their music will be consumed.
12. Using copyright-protected music to create promotional content for charities and nonprofits without obtaining relevant organizations’ licenses.
Philanthropy is noble, but so is ensuring a rightsholder gets paid for their craft. Suppose someone creates content using copyrighted music, promoting a charity, a nonprofit, or even a fundraiser for cancer patients or war victims. In that case, Green says they could still face difficulties without expressed written permission.
“We work with many fantastic nonprofit organizations, schools, churches, and community groups centered around great philanthropic causes, but they must be educated that there’s still a legal process to obtain proper permits, no matter what.”
Green further revealed that some publishers and songwriter camps have a predetermined ‘nonprofit rate’ that can be availed exclusively by nonprofit organizations. “Many rights holders want to help and partner with these great causes. Even gratis — or free permission — is on the table if a request is properly made.”
13. Using a song that’s copyright protected in another region but not in the United States.
A track that isn’t copyright protected in the US may appear like a free-usage opportunity, but that’s still categorized as theft of intellectual property. Green reveals that a non-US copyright holder will still have copyright protection, and each territory has its own copyright laws, procedures, and protections — regardless of where the work is being consumed.
Cross-Atlantic copyright infringement could trigger mammoth litigation once discovered. Green says companies like Easy Song can identify a sub-publisher with US representation to obtain a simple license, “or we can find a pathway to reach the international administration for direct permission.”
14. Expanding distribution to global outlets with US-only licenses.
If you’re creating content that has the potential to eventually make its way around the globe, proactively gaining worldwide deals and licenses will go a long way in safeguarding your interests and business. Green believes licenses may be easier to obtain if you ‘list all territories within which you plan to use the music.’
When expanding distribution to global channels or outlets, license requirements grow bigger. Green says, “Certain media rights may automatically be handled within each country’s PRO or copyright society. These include mechanical licensing reporting for cover audio releases and other special permission cases such as video sync licensing, print rights, etc.”
15. Uploading covers, derivative works, or any content on independent websites and platforms
The consensus: do not upload covers or use copyright-protected music on independent platforms. Unlike YouTube, Meta, TikTok, and DSPs, independent video and audio platforms may lack the royalty infrastructure that would accurately compensate copyright holders. There is no license that legally allows copyrighted music on these independent websites and apps. For the average music creator and user, it’s imperative to ensure that the platform you’re using to share your content pays out PRO royalties via ASCAP, BMI, and all other PRO territories for copyrighted music streamed.
Other than private listening, any other form of re-creation or reproduction is strictly prohibited without a license, and the law doesn’t care how hard you worked on building your content.
According to Green, if you’re using copyrighted music without permission, you risk allowing your reputation, channels, and social media profiles to go up in smoke.
Fortunately, most major creators can gain permissions and licenses with little legwork. The gateway to legally using copyrighted music for cover songs, UGC, and advertisements is to enlist the services of a licensing authority like Easy Song that will oversee content creation at all stages. Licensing platforms and their affiliated organizations proactively acquire all necessary licenses when needed, so you can safely utilize copyright-protected music assets.