Are Cover Versions of Anime Songs Legal?
by Justin Sevakis,
There's a lot of youtube artist who do English covers of anime songs. A few of them even end up on itunes (though with new instrumentation). This brings a lot of questions to mind. Is this illegal? How does copyright work for covering songs in countries that aren't licensed for them. Does itunes check for copyright infringement when they accept songs into their service? And does fresh performances of these songs (instead of using karaoke tracks) have any impact on their legality?
Music compositions and lyrics are copyrighted. But due to the system by which they're licensed, they're treated a little bit differently than other creative works, in that anybody willing to pay a fee can license pretty much any song to perform on their own and distribute, and the author of the work really doesn't have to be consulted.
Note that I am not talking about copying an existing performance of a song, like an MP3 for example. I'm talking about the music and lyrics themselves. In order for your performance to be on the up-and-up, you need to license the "mechanical rights" to a song from one of the clearing houses for those rights: the most prominent is called Songfile (run by the Harry Fox Agency). Those services work with the music publishers to get you licensed, and charge about US$14-16 per song to do so. In addition to that, you will owe a royalty of 9.1¢ per time that song gets downloaded. It's all quite easily done online, and getting the license takes less than 24 hours. The Mechanical Rights are the right to produce copies of a performance of a song. (Also, "music publisher" in this case means the company assigned the legal right to collect money from the song. This is often a division of a record label, although many musicians have their own.)
Harry Fox Agency is affiliated with JASRAC, the Japanese music rights agency that coordinates payments to all of the music publishers in Japan, so pretty much any published song from the country is available via this method. That said, musicians wanting to create cover versions of Japanese songs might run into several issues. The first is that finding Japanese songs in the SongFile database can be a challenge. Everything is cataloged in all-caps Romaji, and figuring out a song's composer's name(s) in Romaji can be a challenge, since most fan databases of anime songs don't keep track of that.
But without too much trouble, I was able to find the perennial favorite, Yakusoku Wa Iranai, in the SongFile database by searching for Yoko Kanno. I was also able to find THE HERO!!, the opening of One Punch Man, in the database by searching for composer Hironobu Kageyama's name. (Lord knows, searching for "Hero" would've probably been a long and fruitless endeavor.) If I wanted to legally make a (probably terrible) cover version of one of these, I'd like copy down the HFA Song Code (Y05799 for Yakusoku Wa Iranai), register an account, and fill out the form on the site. It's really not much harder than ordering something off of Amazon.
Once I had that license, I would be able to do everything from upload to YouTube to place the song on iTunes or Bandcamp without worry of legal threat. iTunes and Google Play will absolutely ask for music composer and publisher information for reporting purposes. While unauthorized uploads do occasionally get through, they're rare, and usually get caught pretty quickly.
Technically, since YouTube is a video site, I would also need synchronization rights -- the right to combine a composition with certain visuals -- to the song. Those are much harder to get and actually does require negotiating directly with the song's publisher, and for small independent musicians, that's usually a total dead-end. However, YouTube doesn't really enforce the need for synchronization rights, and if a music publisher files a claim on the song, they'll just divert ad revenue in their direction.
Additionally, rewriting the lyrics of a Japanese song to be singable in English is legally murky territory. Generally, anime companies need special permission from the song's publisher before they can translate song lyrics into English; such a translation might be considered a derivative work, and therefore property of the owner of the song (usually the music publishing company). It's one of those things that nobody has yet seemed to care about enough to make it an issue, so we don't really have any clear answers other than "nobody has really gotten in trouble for this yet."
I have no way of knowing how many people doing anime cover songs on YouTube (or cover songs in general) actually go through all this. YouTube's copyright sensing software won't detect cover versions of music, so chances are if you only want to put your performance on YouTube, you'll probably stay under the radar. But if you don't want your song taken down, or don't want to be sent a Cease and Desist order, it's a good idea. Plus, it's only fair that the composer get their royalty.
(Usual disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, the above should not be considered legal advice.)
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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.
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