I want to use the song "Whole Lotta Love" in my upcoming film. Obviously the song is copyrighted by led Zeppelin. So I'm planning to get a few musicians and cover the song and then use it as a background score for my film.

Will that free me of the legal obligations?

  • 2
    What country are you planning to do this in, and what country/countries will the film be distributed in?
    – A E
    Commented Oct 20, 2016 at 21:04
  • 1
    If part of the song was used as a parody, or if it was some kind of documentary and it used the song only as an illustration, then it might count as "fair use", requiring no permission from the copyright owner. The question implies however, that this is not the case.
    – vsz
    Commented Oct 21, 2016 at 6:07
  • I am from India. The movie will most likely stay here unless it turns out to be a smashing hit which is unlikey. Commented Oct 21, 2016 at 11:42

3 Answers 3


No, the musical composition itself (i.e., what you might express tangibly in sheet music) has copyright distinct from the copyright that exists on Led Zepplin's recording of the song. Your new cover will still be a derivative work of the musical composition.

When you record a cover of a copyrighted song, you must get permission from the composer (or current copyright holder of the composition). In the United States, however, you can compel the copyright holder to grant you license under 17 USC §115. Under a compulsory license, you pay a fixed fee per copy of the cover that you distribute (currently 9.1 cents), and the copyright holder must allow you to distribute those copies. See the circular Compulsory License for Making and Distributing Phonorecords from the U.S. Copyright Office. I am not aware of other countries that have a similar compulsory license scheme, so in those jurisdictions, you would need to negotiate a license with the publisher or an intermediary agency they use.

However, even if you did get a compulsory license to distribute your cover song, you must get permission to synchronize the song with a video. The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers describes the copyright holder's exclusive synchronization right:

A synchronization or "synch" right involves the use of a recording of musical work in audio-visual form: for example as part of a motion picture, television program, commercial announcement, music video or other videotape. Often, the music is "synchronized" or recorded in timed relation with the visual images.

Since the synchronization right cannot be acquired under a compulsory license, you will need to have the publisher (or whoever the copyright holder is) agree to license the synchronization right to you under whatever terms the two of you can agree upon.

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    What's the origin of synchronization rights, and why are those separate from the rights to usage of the score/arrangement by itself?
    – JAB
    Commented Oct 20, 2016 at 20:09
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    @JAB The author of the audio may not want it to be associated with a "negative" visual scene, even though he may still agree to let you use the audio for other parts of the visual work.
    – Bakuriu
    Commented Oct 20, 2016 at 20:20
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    @JAB If you mean "origin of" as "legal basis of," this is mentioned in Leadsinger v. BMG, "Though it is not explicit in the Copyright Act, courts have recognized a copyright holder's right to control the synchronization of musical compositions with the content of audiovisual works and have required parties to obtain synchronization licenses from copyright holders." The references for that case date back at least to 1984, in Buffalo v. ASCAP.
    – apsillers
    Commented Oct 20, 2016 at 21:15
  • @apsillers Legal basis of, yeah.
    – JAB
    Commented Oct 20, 2016 at 21:16
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    The colloquial term for synchroniziation rights are the "Big Rights" in a song, while the right to play a song in other contexts is called the "Little Rights" in the song.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Oct 21, 2016 at 6:53

Not in the least. Copyright protects not only a sound recording of a song, but also the song itself, both music and lyrics.

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    And protects them separately. The song could have been performed and written by different people. Two copyrights,
    – user207421
    Commented Oct 20, 2016 at 23:26
  • @EJP quite right. Another consequence of that fact is that using the same lyrics with a different tune, or the same tune with different lyrics, would require consent (subject to certain exceptions, of course, depending on the jurisdiction).
    – phoog
    Commented Oct 21, 2016 at 1:22
  • Actually a typical song has at least four copyrights these days: score, lyrics, raw performance tracks and then the mixed edit.
    – Trish
    Commented May 18, 2022 at 12:21
  • @Trish but a new recording of the song does not infringe the copyright in the studio masters nor the mixed edit.
    – phoog
    Commented May 18, 2022 at 18:19
  • indeed, but knowing how many copyrights do exist in a product makes it horrifying who all could prosecute one for copying... usually it'll be the label, but all others involved can and might....
    – Trish
    Commented May 18, 2022 at 18:24

The 2012 Amendment of India Copyright Act added a provision with respect to compulsory licenses for cover version of musical work (See Section 31C). You cannot significantly alter the work and you must notify the Copyright Board prior to recording which will fix the royalty rate (minimum 50,000 rupees).

  • 1
    In most cases compulsory licenses are limited to the "Little Rights" to replay or cover a song, and not to the "Big Rights" to use it or a cover of it in a film or dramatic production, although I don't now for sure that this holds in India.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Dec 7, 2016 at 23:37

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