I always look forward to a Friday night of live music especially when it involves listening to covers of my favourite songs, like The Kooks’ ‘Naïve’ or Bon Iver’s ‘Skinny Love’ at a local café.
What didn’t cross my mind, until recently, is how performing a cover of another musician’s song may actually be against the law.
Copyright Protection Of Songs
Copyright law exists to protect every song by virtue of its creation.
There is no need to register a composition to protect your creative genius – when you write a score or record a home demo, copyright automatically steps in and gives you exclusive rights and protections. It does not matter if your song is the next number one hit or if you struggle to get your mum to listen to it:
If you created the music, Australian copyright law protects it.
This protection comes in many different forms, giving copyright owners a number of exclusive rights to use and perform creative works, including the right to perform your music in public. Copyright law protects both the score and lyrics of a song meaning that Justin Vernon the writer and composer of ‘Skinny Love’, for example, has the exclusive right to perform his song in public.
Notwithstanding that this is unambiguously the state of the law in Australia, I found myself listening to this song being performed live by another artist. How is this possible? Do you need permission to cover a song live?
What Musicians Need To Know
For all musicians, copyright law is something that you need to be aware of and to understand.
Being aware of your personal rights as a musician is not only important to defend against unauthorised use of your own songs, but also to make sure that you do not unwittingly infringe the creative rights of another artist.
To perform a song in public, you must be granted a licence. Performing a cover without a music licence is a breach of Australian copyright law.
The same principle applies to businesses who wish to play background music within a restaurant or shop. Without a licence, playing a song to the public is an infringement of the rights of the musician and copyright owner.
Obtaining A Music Licence
In Australia, a number of copyright collecting societies provide music licences and distribute royalties to the copyright owners.
For musicians looking to play gigs, the Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA) is the best place to start. Even if you are performing a free show or participating in a charity event hosting free live concerts you must still obtain a licence.
For businesses who wish to play background music, the Phonographic Performance Company of Australia (PPCA) provides a blanket licence that ensures your business complies with the law, however, it is also necessary to obtain a licence from APRA. Alternatively, you can seek permission from individual artists and copyright owners but this method can be onerous.
When Your Song Is Performed By Another Artist
What happens when someone performs your song, or a substantial part of it, without your permission?
- Seek advice on whether you have a solid claim for copyright infringement. The Australian Copyright Council has a free online legal advice service which can help you work this out.
- If your work is being administered by a collecting society, such as APRA, notify your relevant body as soon as possible after you become aware of the possible infringement.
- Contact the infringer. Let them know that you are the owner of the music and that they infringing your copyright by using your music without your permission and without paying for a licence.
You can do this with an informal email or an initial letter of demand that asks the performer to stop infringing your copyright without a relevant licence.
Before sending a letter of demand, or making any claims that someone has infringed your copyright, however, it is critical that you seek legal advice. If you send a threatening letter and the other musician has not actually infringed your copyright, this can be considered a groundless threat, meaning that the person you have accused of infringing your copyright can sue you for making an unsubstantiated threat of legal action.
4. If the above avenues are not successful, as a last resort, you may decide to take the matter to court. If you are successful, the court may order an injunction to stop the infringement of your copyright or make an order that a sum of money (damages) be paid to you.
At The End Of The Day
Copyright is a form of intellectual property.
The musicians behind the songs we know and love – the songs that move us, that make us feel and make our lives infinitely better – need to be protected, supported and credited by other artists, individuals and businesses. The only way artists can continue to enrich our lives is through greater respect, awareness and compliance with the moral and economic rights to their music.
How often do you perform covers as part of your set list? Have you considered the copyright implications? Let us know in the comments!
Arts Law Centre – for more information on your rights as a musician and access to legal professionals specialising in copyright law.
To learn more about your rights as a musician visit:
To find safe and licenced content online visit:
For a list of legal digital music content providers in Australia and internationally visit:
To get in touch with a legal professional specialising in entertainment law visit:
- Marque Lawyers (NSW)
- Creative Legal (WA and Vic)
- Studio Legal (Vic)
- Media Arts Lawyers (NSW and Vic)
- Shaun Miller Lawyers (Vic)
- Simpsons Lawyers (NSW)
- Sanicki Lawyers (Vic and Qld)
- McCormicks (Qld)