What happens when a band covers a song and the song gets popular?


Are the royalties split between the original composer and the cover band? I’m talking about songs like “Killing me softly with his song”, that was originally recorded by Lori Lieberman, re recorded by Roberta Flack and by The Fugees.

In: 60

It’ll depend on the agreement the “new band” made with whoever has the rights to the original song (not always the artist)

Copyright and licensing of songs is complex, because there can be multiple different rights (and thus licenses) involved as well as multiple creators.

For example, the lyrics and the musical composition can be by different creators, so rights for those can vest separately. But the artist might have sold the rights to their music, so the lyricist or composer aren’t necessarily the copyright holders. So I’m just going to refer to “copyright holders” — those are the owners of the original music, whether they were the original creators or someone who bought all the rights to the music from the original creator.

Then there’s what a music copyright protects. Copyright for music covers:

* publishing (sheet music)
* recording (and distribution/sale of the recording)
* publicly performing
* broadcasting

All of those things are protected. Legally, you *can’t* [EDIT: original said “can” and that was a grievous error, the opposite of what I intended] do any of those things — including performing a cover — without the permission of the copyright holders. That permission is known as a **license**, and there are different kinds of licenses for the different rights listed above.

If you’re going to ***publicly perform* a cover** of a song or if you’re a broadcast service (e.g. radio) or a streaming service that is going to play the song on air/on a stream, then you need to get a **license for performing rights**. (“Performing” includes broadcasting.)

Now, it would be a nightmare for a copyright holder to keep track of all the the times a song is played or performed. Therefore, radio stations, streaming services, and performance venues work with what are known as Performing Rights Organizations (PROs) or Collection Management Organizations (CMOs). These are associations like ASCAP, BMI, etc.

The broadcaster/streamer/venue purchases a blanket license for their station/services/venue from the PRO/CMO and then reports the songs that are played on their station, service, or venue. The PRO/CMO then pays a portion of the revenue they collect from stations, services, and venues out to the copyright holders based on how many times the copyright holders’ song was performed/played.

If you’re going to ***record* a cover** of a song then you need to get a **license for mechanical rights**. Mechanical rights allow someone to record and distribute the recording of the copyright holders’ song. The cover artist has to pay the copyright holder a percentage or flat fee for each copy sold of the recorded cover song of the song.

The cover artist gets paid when *their recorded version* of the song is performed/broadcast/streamed (because they own the copyright to that specific cover recording), but the copyright holder *also* gets paid (because they own the underlying copyright) for that performance/broadcast/stream. So, yeah, cover songs don’t make as much money for an artist as an original song does, because the artist has to share a cut of the revenue from the cover recording with the copyright holder.

Streaming services have to pay for both a performance license and a mechanical license because songs are both streamed (covered by the performance license) and downloaded (covered by the mechanical license).

There are also other types of licenses:

* A **sync license** is required if the music is going to be used in TV, movies, commercials, etc., whether in it’s original form or modified.
* A **master license** is like a sync license, but for a *specific recording* of a song. So if you were the copyright holder for a song called “Music Licensing Is Hard” and I recorded a cover of that, I could grant a master license to use my recording of your song in a movie, but the movie’s producers would *also* have to get a sync license from you, the copyright holder.
* A **print license** is to be able to print/publish/put-online sheet music (or, say, guitar tabs) for the copyright holders’ song.
* A **theatrical license** is to be able to use a song in a play or other theatrical performance, whether performed live or broadcast over the theater sound system.

I’m sure there are more music licenses I’m forgetting.

I’m not sure that’s literally an ELI5, but hopefully it’s clear.

For music, there are compulsory licenses. That means once a song is released publicly, anybody is allowed to cover the song as long as they pay the royalties. The royalty rates are set by the government.

If you record a cover, and use a service like distrokid, you tell them who originally wrote the song. They handle everything else, they take a cut of the royalties, send it to the correct person. Doesn’t matter if you sell 1 copy or a million.

Now YouTube is a little different. Setting music to video requires a sync license, and there are no compulsory licenses for that. YouTube has agreements with many record companies, so they may be able to get you a license. Or maybe not.

Note that sampling is something completely different, and you’ll need to negotiate for each sample you use.

In the case of [Killing Me Softly](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Killing_Me_Softly_with_His_Song) (to look at your example), the song was written by [Norman Gimbel](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norman_Gimbel) and [Charles Fox](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Fox_(composer)) (and maybe a little by [Lori Lieberman](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lori_Lieberman#%22Killing_Me_Softly%22_controversy)?), and those two (or three?) people own the song no matter who performs it.

Every time Roberta Flack or the Fugees or Perry Como or anyone else performs that song live, and every time that song is streamed or broadcast or whatever, Gimbel (dead) and Fox (alive) or their heirs get a payment. I don’t know if Lieberman gets a payment — she’s not listed in [the database](https://repertoire.bmi.com/Search/Search?Main_Search_Text=killing%20me%20softly&Main_Search=Title&Sub_Search=Please%20Select&Search_Type=all&View_Count=0&Page_Number=0) as a writer of that song.

As an unscientific but quite sweet illustration, I can offer an example as told by Kelly Jones of the Stereophonics. His band covered a song called “Handbags and Gladrags,” written in the 1960s by the lead singer from Manfred Mann.

Kelly Jones explained while introducing the song on stage that:

*”I had a phone call from Mike, the guy who wrote this one, and he said, Kelly, thanks so much for covering my song. I was going to have a patio put in my garden, but now I’m getting a conservatory instead.”*