The musical world is full of covers.  They are popular fare for coffee shop bands, and some of the most famous versions of songs are, in fact, the covers.  For example, fans of the film Donnie Darko will be familiar with Mad World.  The version by Gary Jules used in Donnie Darko is, in fact, a cover of the original by Tears for Fears. And most people know Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah, but the original song was done by Leonard Cohen (okay, not that obscure, but I trust that my point has been made).

If you’re like me, covers are a fact of life but lack any real sort of explanation.  When I began to read more about copyright law I was initially confused.  It seemed unlikely that bands would just allow anyone to record covers of their songs, and it hardly seemed like an exemption for Fair Use.  As it turns out, I was correct.

Lawrence Lessig’s book Free Culture shed some light on this very topic in the first few chapters (I highly recommend it, by the way).  As it turns out, cover versions have been protected since the Copyright Act of 1909, when Congress moved to prevent one company from monopolizing the player piano market.  Once an artist has released a recording of a song, it is legal for anyone to make their own recording of the same song by either: 1) working out an agreement with the copyright holder, or 2) paying a fee to the copyright holder set by Congress without the permission of the copyright holder. [1]

So, cover versions hold an interesting position in U.S. copyright law.  Thank goodness, because where would we be without gems like Amanda Palmer’s totally excellent ukulele cover album of Radiohead songs?[2]  This has been your lesson on copyright for today.  Please think responsibly.

[1] Wikipedia:
[2] Amanda Palmer: