In copyright law, a mechanical license is a license that grants certain limited permissions to work with, study, improve upon, reinterpret, re-record (etc.) something that is neither a free/open source item nor in the public domain.
Within the music industry, a mechanical license gives the holder permission to create copies of a recorded song which they did not write and/or do not have copyright over. It is an agreement with the composition copyright holder, the publisher, or the songwriter that allows the holder to reproduce the composition – recording, printed sheet music, lyrics, for example. This license specifically refers to the musical composition as an entity, not any particular physical sound recording(s) of the composition. For example, you would need a mechanical license to publish sheet music for "California Girls," composed by Brian Wilson and Mike Love, from their publisher. You would also need it if you wanted to press CDs of your band singing "California Girls." However, if you wanted to press CDs of the 1965 Beach Boys recording of "California Girls," you would need both a mechanical license and a master recording license from the Beach Boys (or their record label).
In the United States of America, most mechanical licenses are obtained through the Harry Fox Agency. Other commercial agencies such as RightsFlow (via the Limelight online mechanical license form utility) and easySongLicensing.com also issue compulsory mechanical licenses. Harry Fox Agency and the other commercial agencies collect and distribute the royalties, plus they collect a per-song service fee of roughly $15.
A mechanical license can only be used after the original copyright holder has exercised their exclusive right of first publishing, or permission is negotiated.
In American law, US Code Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 115(a)(2) states: "A compulsory license includes the privilege of making a musical arrangement of the work to the extent necessary to conform it to the style or manner of interpretation of the performance involved, but the arrangement shall not change the basic melody or fundamental character of the work ..." thus preventing mechanical licenses being used to make substantially derivative works of a piece of music.
This license is often used for the purpose of self-promotion. For instance a cellist who performed a musical work on a recording may obtain a mechanical license in order to distribute copies of the recording to others as an example of his cello playing. This is also used by recording artists performing cover versions of songs and artists who do not typically write their own songs, as is typical in Country and Pop music. In the United States, this is required by copyright law regardless whether or not the copies are for commercial sale.
A mechanical license is not required for an artist who is recording and distributing his/her own completely original work.
See also 
- Halloran, Mark (1996). "Copyrights: The Law and You". The Musician's Business & Legal Guide. Pretence Hall. p. 65. ISBN 0-13-237322-X.
- "US CODE: Title 17,115. Scope of exclusive rights in nondramatic musical works: Compulsory license for making and distributing phonorecords". Cornell University Law School. Retrieved 2008-03-07.
- "Do I need a mechanical license?". Harry Fox Agency. 2004-2006. Retrieved 2010-08-08.
- "The billion dollar ringtones war". The Register. 2006. Retrieved 2007-01-09.