Answers to Legal Music Questions

Dennis Sinnott has worked in the music industry for almost 40 years, where he managed the publishing and recording catalogues of Screen Gems, New York Times Music, Metromedia and many others. He's the authority on how to write and publish a hit song (check out his eBook Masters Of Songwriting), and an expert on all those thorny rights issues. Here, he answers some common questions about how you can use songs and who you need to contact to get the rights.

My band wants to record "Hotel California." Can we?
This is known as a "cover recording." The answer is yes, provided you don't make changes to the music or lyrics or rearrange the song in such a way as to be deemed harmful or damaging to the original work - for example, making changes to the melody, chord structure, tempo etc, or substituting or changing any of the lyrics.
Probably the best policy is to keep your cover recording as close to the original as possible. If you're in any doubt whatsoever, before spending money on an expensive recording, contact the copyright owner or controller of the composition, normally the music publisher. Most songs are registered at one of the main performing right societies, and can easily be traced. In the USA go to ASCAP, BMI or SESAC web sites: (then click on ACE Title Search)

Enter the title of the song and writers to find the music publisher. Once you have the publisher's phone number, ask to be put through to their copyright department.
Once you have cleared the above, before you can release your cover recording, you, or whoever's releasing the product (normally the record company), will need to secure a mechanical license. This is for a royalty payment to the music publisher. In most cases this is done through the mechanical rights society operating in the country where your record is going to sell. In the USA this will be the Harry Fox Agency. Go to their site at

I want to use "Cool For Cats" in my school play. Can I do this?
Contact the copyright owner - normally the music publisher for permission.
In most cases permission to perform a copyright work in public (including broadcasting on television and radio), is handled by one of the performing right societies - i.e ASCAP, BMI or SESAC (PRS in the UK), who represent the copyright owner (the music publisher and the writer). However, certain forms of public performance, such as stage performance, musicals, plays and drama (Grand Rights), can fall outside of the performing right societies' control. In this regard, the person seeking permission should contact the copyright owner direct - normally the music publisher. As before, tracing the music publisher can be done by contacting one of the performing societies.

I made a Powerpoint presentation for a meeting where we use "Right Now." Is this legal?
The use and or replication of any copyright work, without permission, is an infringement. Contact the copyright owner before using any work, and secure written permission.

Why could John McCain keep using "This Is Our Country" at campaign appearances, even though John Mellencamp asked him not to?
Most professional songwriters are members of one of the main performing right societies. Normally, a precondition of membership is that the writer assigns his performing and broadcasting rights to the society. Once a song is registered, the society then has the right to issue licenses for public and broadcasting use generally in that song. In my opinion, the only way to prevent licenses being issued, would be to de-register a work. However, if the writer has assigned his copyright to a music publisher, the latter will be entitled to maintain the registration with the society for the duration of the writer's publishing contract.

Can TV stations play any music they want in their promos?
Mostly, Yes, provided such music has been registered through one of the main performing right societies i.e ASCAP, BMI, SESAC in the USA, SOCAN in Canada, PRS in the UK, APRA in Australia, and so on. Licensing between the societies and the TV companies is normally done through a series of blanket agreements.

Why do I keep hearing Beatles songs in commercials, but never anything by Bruce Springsteen?
This is down to the advertising agents and manufacturers choosing a particular song or piece of music they feel best suits their product. Permission must be sort from the music publisher - a so called synchronization license. In some countries, the mechanical collection society (i.e MCPS in the UK), will offer to issue a license on behalf of its member, the music publisher.

I heard "Lust For Life" in a commercial, but it didn't sound like Iggy Pop. What gives?
Could be one of two reasons: (1) The record company or production company owning the masters, didn't want the original recording associated with the product, or (2) they wanted too much money, so the advertising agency decided a cover recording would be the cheaper option. Of course they'd still need to get a synchronization license from the owner of the written composition (music publisher).

How do I know if a song is in the Public Domain, meaning I don't have to pay rights to use it?
Check with the Copyright Office of the Library Of Congress:

What royalties do internet radio stations have to pay?
webcasters pay for each song streamed to each user, and increase over the next few years as follows:

2006: $0.0008 to stream one song to one listener
2007: $.0011
2008: $.0014
2009: $.0018
2010: $.0019

For more information, go to

I have some songs I wrote many years ago while in a band. How do I get them copyrighted?
You don't copyright a song. Copyright exists the moment your song is created, (or anything else you create for that matter). What you have to do is take steps immediately to protect the copyright you've created. For a complete guide on copyright registration - see: Masters Of Songwriting.

Does my church have to pay if the choir sings "Spirit In The Sky"?
The U.S. Copyright Law (Section 110 [c]) provides an exemption for performance and display of "works of a religious nature in a religious service." Many churches and ministries today need performance licenses from ASCAP, BMI and SESAC because they are performing or causing to be performed (playing) music in many non-exempt settings outside their religious services. The non-exempt performances or playing of music require licensing - concerts (non-ticketed), social and youth events, fund raisers, aerobics and dance classes, conferences, music-on-hold - really any time music is played or performed in your facilities outside a worship service.

What royalties do you have to pay for backing tracks (Karaoke versions)?
I don't believe there is a set rate. I would suggest contacting the licensor and music publisher.

I want to record "Burnin' For You," but change the lyrics. Can I do this?
This is a parody of lyric. Contact the music publisher for permission.

Does Weird Al Yankovic need permission to do his parodies?
Yes, from the music publisher.

Who needs to give permission to "American Idol" for the songs the contestants sing?
The music publisher.

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