Cover songs. Cover bands. YouTube covers. Etc. So what are we talking about here? What’s a cover?

Music terminology these days includes two kinds of songs: originals and covers. Originals are songs that you wrote. Covers are songs that you perform, but someone else wrote.

“In popular music, a cover version or cover song, or simply ‘cover’ is a new performance or recording of a previously recorded, commercially released song by someone other than the original artist or composer.”  -Wikipedia

Then there’s this obscure-sounding thing called “copyright” that’s somehow in the middle of it all.

So, what’s the deal with copyright? Most people would agree that the concept is fair and right. The U.S. Copyright Law protects created works (like songs, recordings, and videos) by providing six exclusive rights to their owners. That means only the copyright owner has the right to do any of those six activities without permission. The six exclusive rights are reproduction, adaptation (derivative works), distribution, performance, display, and digital sound recordings.

Yes, odd as it seems (especially in this YouTube era), performance is an exclusive right of a copyright owner. If you write a song, the law says that no one but you has the right to perform that song until they somehow get your permission.

So, is covering a song “legal”? Well, it depends on a lot of different things. For the limited purposes of this article, let’s just think of “performance” as actually playing a song live in front of an audience. (The law defines “performance” to also include playing recorded music and videos, but we’ll address that in another article. And creating YouTube cover videos stirs up even more issues.) In typical performance venues, like theaters, auditoriums, stadiums, concert halls, restaurants, and night clubs, the venue is responsible for securing a “performance license” from Performing Rights Societies like ASCAP, BMI and SESAC—who have reached agreements with songwriters and publishers to represent their performance rights.

Church is different, because there is a performance exemption actually written into the Federal Copyright Law for worship services. Section 110(3) states that the following are not infringements of copyright:

“Performance of a nondramatic literary or musical work or of a dramatic-musical work of a religious nature, or display of a work, in the course of services at a place of worship or other religious assembly.” -U.S. Copyright Law, Section 110(3)

Interesting. So to cover a song in church without permission and still be legal, it has to be a song “of a religious nature” performed “in the course of services.” OK, seems straightforward enough. Except it’s not.

No one would likely question the “religious nature” of most hymns or worship songs sung in churches today. But there will undoubtedly be questions along the fringe. What about some U2 songs? What about “Let It Be”? What about Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”? What about Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ On A Prayer”?

All I can say is, you now know what the law says. And you probably remember the song made famous by Jiminy Cricket. “…Always let your conscience be your guide.” Since I brought it up –could that be a song “of a religious nature”? Hmmm. Let the rationalizations begin.

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As a songwriter, worship leader and team member, and a member of the marketing team, Paul is connected to CCLI in every possible way. Paul serves as CCLI’s Content Creator in the U.S. Service Center in Vancouver, Washington. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Communications from George Fox University and has served as a marketing/communications specialist for a number of ministries.

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