How music copyright works…
Songs are considered “creative works” which means that artists need only record their piece of music in a tangible way for it to be protected by copyright laws.
This also means that the creator of the song has the exclusive rights to publicly perform the song, distribute copies, and reproduce it. If a person wants to remix, cover or sample a given song, they must obtain creative permission from the original artist.
In a really broad sense, there’s copyright over the underlying songwriting, which is typically owned by the songwriter(s) or a publishing company – think melodies, sounds, lyrics, if any – and the recording of the song itself, which is typically owned by a record label or the artist(s).
The business of unofficial remixes.
One of the most interesting parts of music streaming giant SoundCloud is one’s ability to listen to an abundance of mixes and unofficial remixes. These both use samples/songs without explicit approval from the original artist. SoundCloud, for a long while, gave artists the opportunity to experiment with remixes without having to pay out royalties – it was thus a great tool for young artists to experiment with mixing, and a great platform for listeners to have access to some content that couldn’t exist elsewhere. Although they’ve since cracked down a little, unofficial remixes are still rampant on the platform. The problem, of course, is that artists want to get paid.
As of 2016, the streaming of unofficial remixes and uncleared mixes on Spotify became available in limited contexts.
This addition came from an agreement with Dubset, a content ID service focused primarily on DJ releases (i.e., mixes). Dubset has developed software to determine which components of mixes come from incorporated content – or, in other words, who should be getting paid. This was a major step for Spotify and, in our view, the industry. Spotify users benefit from access to a richer library of content, and artists whose tracks are included in mixes are realizing some benefit.
But the story doesn’t end here – one of the major problems with Dubset at the time of the original deal was its level of reach. Dubset had yet to land any deals with major labels, limiting its access to content. As of this August, however, Dubset is now in business with Sony Music to allow monetization of its songs in unofficial remixes and mixes. This will may eventually open the flood gates for bootleg remixes and DJ sets to be cleared and distributed on Spotify.
But what about sampling and official covers?
To sample or cover a song legally, you need to obtain permission and a “mechanical license,” respectively, from the original creator or any publishing companies/record labels that hold the rights to a particular song. This license means that the original creator of the song receives a royalty based on how much revenue you generate.
If you do not properly obtain permission to commercially release a cover or a song that samples a copyrighted piece of music, you may, as a worst case, face copyright litigation. More likely, you’ll get a slap on the wrist, will have to take down your cover/song, and may be punished strongly by Spotify and other stores.
It should be noted, however, that if you alter a given sample or track so that an average person can’t recognize a substantial likeness between the sample and your song, you’re not in violation of any copyright laws. Also, if you are not publicly releasing anything (or profiting from the piece of music) you will be ok to sample/cover without consequence.
In terms of automated procedures to prevent unofficial remixes from being published, YouTube’s content ID system is as an example very powerful and strict, and even SoundCloud has cracked down by implementing a similar system in collaboration with major labels. Certain producers have taken new measures, such as pitching or speeding up/slowing down vocal samples, to get around these systems, with varying levels of success.
Put simply though, it’s always best to seek permission before sampling/remixing, and not to risk the consequences. Apart from the economic argument of loss avoidance, from a moral perspective, re-interpretations of existing art should be properly credited. This just makes sense.
The bottom line.
If in doubt, seek permission before putting together any sort of remix or cover, provided that you’re looking to distribute to Spotify, iTunes etc. If sticking to SoundCloud, understand that its content ID system is relatively likely to pick up on obvious samples or unofficial remixes – although, apart from this risk of song takedowns, there’s no real problem with it on the platform.
Music copyright is in general quite a complicated subject, but it’s important both to know your own rights and to ensure that you respect the rights of others. For a deep dive on these concepts, this basic guide on music copyright is a good start – there are plenty of others out there.
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This article is part of our new series which is designed to elucidate the inner workings of the world’s preeminent streaming platform, particularly from the perspective of artists looking to boost their Spotify presence. For more opinion pieces and informational content on music marketing, head over to the Producer’s Hub. (Or sister site.)