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Obtaining the Rights to Sample Music

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Music sampling is a widely used and important technique in modern music production. Sampling involves taking portions of pre-existing recordings and incorporating them into new compositions. Although it was predominantly used in hip hop when it first became prevalent, today sampling adds depth, creativity, and familiarity to songs across countless genres of music.

Let’s dive into the world of sampling and learn how to sample music while protecting your work.

Understanding copyright law and music sampling

When discussing copyright law, it’s important to highlight the distinction between the two main components: the musical composition and the sound recording.

Composition and cover songs

The musical composition refers to the underlying musical structure, including the melody, lyrics, and chord progressions. If you produce an original recording of someone else’s song, that’s not considered sampling, that is recording a cover.

Another important legal point: you do not need permission to cover someone’s song, those are covered by something called “compulsory licensing.” You do need to obtain a mechanical license to record and release a cover and pay the standard rate of 9.1¢ per pressing per song. So, if you are including a cover song on your next album and you’re making 1,000 CDs, you will have to pay $91 to use that song. Disc Makers partners with EasySong to make licensing a cover song simple.

Sound recording and samples

The sound recording, on the other hand, refers to the specific recording of a performance or arrangement of a composition. If you use a portion of another artist’s recording in your song, that is sampling, and that requires getting permission from the artist first.

Note: sampling does not have to come from recorded music. Video games, movies, TV shows, etc. can all be sampled and will require clearances if you are to use them in your release.

To complicate matters, unlike with cover songs, there is no standard fee for sampling. Every sample has to be negotiated with the owner of the copyright, and that can get pretty expensive.

Interpolation

Interpolation is something of a blend between a cover and sampling. Interpolation involves re-recording or replaying a specific musical element, such as a guitar riff or drum pattern, to create a similar but distinct sound. A classic example of interpolation is Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message,” which features a replayed bassline — not a sample — from the song “Good Times” by Chic.

Interpolation allows artists to capture the essence of a particular sound while adding their own creative touch. According to the U.S. Copyright office, you need to get permission from the owner of the composition copyright and interpolation. Again, unlike with cover songs, there is no standard fee for licensing a song for interpolation, so it can be pricey.

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The legality of sampling without proper authorization or clearance has been a subject of debate and numerous legal battles. But the law is now clear: In order to sample music legally, it is essential to obtain the necessary permissions and licenses from the owners of the sound recording. Unauthorized sampling will result in legal action taken against you — and will prevent you from producing CDs or vinyl copies of your recording.

Fair use

There are some exceptions to the rule stated above, the most famous of which is called “fair use.” Fair use allows limited use of copyrighted material without permission from the copyright owner for purposes such as criticism, commentary, parody, or education.

However, fair use can be a complex and subjective issue, with courts considering factors like the purpose, nature, amount, and effect of the use when determining its legality. For more information about fair use, reference the U.S. Copyright Office’s Fair Use Index.

Clearing samples and obtaining permissions

Obtaining the necessary permissions and licenses from the copyright owners is known as “clearing” samples. Clearing samples involves reaching out to the copyright holders and negotiating agreements for the use of their copyrighted material.

The process of sample clearance can vary depending on the specific rights involved, such as the sound recording rights and the underlying musical composition rights. It often requires contacting the record labels, music publishers, and copyright administrators associated with the sampled works. Sample clearance services like Tracklib can assist in navigating the complex landscape of music licensing and ensure proper authorization.

Consequences of unauthorized sampling

Disc Makers guide to Making A Great MasterSampling music without proper permission can lead to significant legal consequences. Copyright infringement claims can result in lawsuits, financial penalties, and the forced removal of the infringing material from distribution.

Several high-profile cases have highlighted the potential risks of unauthorized sampling. One of the most famous of these was when Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman of The Turtles sued De La Soul in 1991 for the unauthorized sample of The Turtles’ 1969 song “You Showed Me.” The case was settled out of court, but the former Turtles members allegedly received $1.7 million.

Best practices for sampling music legally

When it comes to sampling music legally, there are several key considerations that musicians and producers should keep in mind.

  1. Obtain clearances. While it’s time-consuming, reaching out to the copyright holders and obtaining proper clearances is required. This applies not only to major label releases but also to independent artists and lesser-known compositions. Even a short sample can require clearance.
  2. Document permissions. Keep documentation of all permissions and licenses obtained. This includes maintaining records of the agreements, correspondence, and any associated fees. In the event of a dispute or legal inquiry, having proper documentation will support your case and demonstrate that you have followed the necessary steps.
  3. Work with sample clearance services. Sample clearance services can aid in navigating the intricacies of music licensing. These services specialize in identifying copyright holders, negotiating clearances, and ensuring that you are legally covered. Their expertise can save time, streamline the process, and offer peace of mind.
  4. Use royalty-free samples. In addition to clearing samples, another option for incorporating music into your compositions legally is to use royalty-free samples. These are pre-cleared samples that can be freely used without the need for individual clearances. Numerous online platforms and libraries offer royalty-free sample packs, covering various genres and musical styles.
  5. Be aware of creative commons. Creative Commons licenses provide a framework for creators to share their works while retaining certain rights or granting permissions for specific uses. Familiarize yourself with the different types of Creative Commons licenses, such as Attribution (CC BY), Non-Commercial (CC BY-NC), or ShareAlike (CC BY-SA). However, it’s important to note that not all Creative Commons-licensed material is suitable for sampling, as some licenses may restrict derivative works or commercial use.
  6. When in doubt, hire an entertainment lawyer. Lawyers can help speed along the entire clearing process, but more importantly, they will keep you on the right side of the law. You do not want to run the risk of a lawsuit.

Protect your own music

Don’t forget to copyright your song! Disc Makers has partnered with Cosynd to help you copyright your songs so you’ll be protected if anyone wants to cover or sample your music.

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About Philip Kinsher

Philip Kinsher is a writer, editor, and musician with a predilection for YA Sci-fi Fantasy books and rock and roll. And golf and pickleball.

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