U.S. copyright law requires you to obtain permission (a license) from the owners of a song when you record a cover of it, no matter how you use it.
This is true even if you are giving away your project for free, or if it's for a non-profit.
You do not need permission to use songs that you wrote yourself or songs that you know are in the Public Domain.
Additionally any cover version of an existing work must always respect the "Moral Rights" of the original author or composer.
- respect the copyrights of the original writers by displaying their names in the song credits.
- maintain the integrity of the lyrics and the music.
In all Civil Law jurisdictions, such as most European countries, if the cover song is faithful to the original work, it is sufficient to just mention the owners of that work, and it is not required to obtain an authorization to use the work. However, all rights holders (writers and publishers) shall be credited.
In Common Law countries like USA, it is always necessary to obtain a Mechanical License for distributing a cover song.
You may obtain a licence from one of these services:
It can also happen that in some situations, the publishers or copyright owners should be contacted for an authorization / approval:
- When performing what is commonly known as a "transformation" or "variation" or "derivative work" of the work.
- When the cover differs from the original work, or have different arrangements (such as a "Pop" song performed in "Salsa" style).
The abovementioned cases may infringe the moral rights of the original writers and shall be subject to an authorization.
WARNING: Cover songs must not be understood as a Remix. If a Remix or the use Samples (of other songs) are made, it is always required to request the corresponding permission from the owner of the original master (which has been used in part) and from the writers/publishers. In other terms you have to clear Master and Publishing rights for remixing and/or sampling an existing song.