Thursday, November 10, 2011

What's the "Right" Way to Post Cover Songs on YouTube?

Dear Rich: My band had a nice show at the Freight and Salvage and we'd like to post some YouTube video but all but one of our tunes is a cover song. What's the current custom on that score on YouTube? I've peeked at some stuff on the web about this, but am not getting very clear answers. The whole YouTube ethic seems to be post and ask forgiveness later, but I'd like to just do it right, if there is a "right" way. Remember the good old days when the "right" way to promote a band was to bribe a DJ or the person at Tower Records who reported to Billboard? But what happens now that radio programmers are out of the picture and record stores owners are MIA. Did digital music wreck the whole payola thing? Or is it more of a crowd-sourcing activity now -- like you bribe folks for YouTube views? Or you pay to get "Likes" at Facebook?
Right, you had a question. The short answer is to give up on doing it the "right" way. The proper way to post a video of a cover tune is to obtain a 'sync license' from the owner of the song -- usually a music publisher that owns songwriting rights. The chances of you, as an unsigned artist, accomplishing that task would be about as likely as obtaining John Lennon's tooth. (BTW, a book on celebrity teeth -- Keith Richards call your dentist -- is apparently available in Canada.). It's for that reason everyone including an aspiring Justin Bieber, apparently posts covers without permission. (Note, that all may change if new punishments are adopted.)
We're talking about covers, here ... YouTube does have a means of locating videos that use major label recordings -- for example if you use a Prince song as a soundtrack for your child's dance routine. YouTube seems to possess digital fingerprints for pre-recorded pop tunes because when we posted a video of our commute to Nolo and included a track by everybody's favorite, Rockwell, we received a notice within hours of posting. YouTube had found unauthorized material on our video (and as punishment was going to run ads over our video). YouTube reserves the right to take down our video but in the interim, the company apparently divides the advertising revenue with the rightsholders -- music publishers and record companies. We're pretty sure YouTube doesn't have similar method for detecting cover versions -- that is, when someone else performs a Prince song. Of course, these unauthorized uses could still be located via old-fashioned text searches or spot scanning of videos. And songwriters who discover covers of their material can still issue a DMCA notice to YouTube (although you don't hear much about that practice these days). So, in summary, the 'post now, deal with it later' approach is the default mechanism for covers.
What about Limelight and Harry Fox? Harry Fox and Limelight are companies that provide a means of obtaining a compulsory license -- the right to release CDs and MP3s of cover songs. These licenses do not apply to audio-visual works.