In the United States, Congress has enacted provisions to the Copyright Act which allows anyone to obtain a license to reproduce publicly distributed musical compositions without the consent of the Copyright holder. This is what is known as a compulsory mechanical license. The key words here are without the consent.
A potential licensee does have to do a few things before they can start distributing cover songs and sheet music. First, the licensee must provide notice to the copyright holder or copyright office of the intention to obtain a compulsory mechanical license. Consent is a different word than Notice. Next, the licensee must agree to pay a royalty to the copyright holder. Basically, the Copyright Act allows you to record covers of other artists, but you still have to pay them for their work in creating the song. The royalty rate is standard across the industry. Lastly, the licensee cannot change the fundamental character of the work. This does not mean a licensee cannot change the general arrangement and put their own interpretation on the work, but massive changes could violate the Copyright Act.
One important note. The copyright holder still controls public performance rights of the work. Although you may have obtained a compulsory license to re-record a cover song and distribute physical copies, an additional license may have to obtained, usually from ASCAP or BMI, to publicly perform (live performances, radio, and internet) the musical composition.
Bradley Legal Group, P.A. are Intellectual Property lawyers, Entertainment lawyers and Music lawyers servicing clients in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton, West Palm Beach, Orlando, and Nashville. We also affiliate with entertainment lawyers licensed in New York and Washington, D.C. © 2012 Bradley Legal Group, P.A.