Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Who Owns Sound Recording Copyright in Cover Version?

photo: Barry Mulling
Dear Rich: I have a follow up to my original question from December regarding a cover version of a Beck song. I just submitted my mechanical licensing paperwork to Kobalt (Beck's music publisher) for the Beck songs. Does a cover artist normally retain copyright to their recording/performance? The agreement says that Kobalt retains the copyright to all use of the song. Even though it is a cover, I thought I should still be able to copyright the 'recording' itself. When I challenged them on it they said no, Kobalt retains copyright to everything. Is this normal for a cover song? I felt like I should retain copyright to my arrangement and recording, outside of the song/lyrics/melody. Thankfully my next collection will have no covers! We think there's some confusion as to the two copyrights involved -- the musical composition copyright and the sound recording copyright. We're guessing that the Kobalt rep meant that Beck retains all rights to the musical composition copyright -- as well as to changes you make to the song -- but not to the sound recording copyright.
The cover song scenario. Typically, a performer who uses a compulsory license, retains all rights to the sound recording copyright (or the rights are retained by a record company or producer). Even when a performer seeks permission from the music publisher --  if for example, the lyrics are changed or a lower fee is negotiated -- the performer still usually retains the sound recording copyright. For example, if Weird Al parodied a song, he might have to give up his lyrics to the music publisher -- which is why the lyrics to "Eat It" are credited to Michael Jackson -- but not the rights to the sound recording. There would be a great disincentive to perform cover songs (Goodbye American Idol!) if the music publishers ended up owning the performances.
Your situation. Even if we're wrong and Kobalt is demanding the sound recording copyright, you can still retain rights. As you remember from our previous answer, we think some or all of the songs on Beck's Song Reader album are subject to compulsory license -- meaning that permission is not needed if you're willing to pay the fees and play by the compulsory license rules. (Limelight appears to be one of the licensing agents.) In that case, you can retain all rights.

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