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Sampling Music & Copyright Infringement: What is Allowed?

Some Background on Sampling Music

Ever since digital techniques began to osmose into music-making, sampling has been a growingly-fundamental process that exemplifies the creativity & resourcefulness of the musical artform. Originating in hip-hop music, but now appearing in other genres such as RnB & House Music, sampling is the process of taking a “sample” from an original piece and recontextualizing it in a new song. This “sample” could be the vocals, instruments, or even the entire song’s structure, but is usually limited to somewhere between 1-8 bars of the song; something which can be repeated in a motif-like fashion. Just watch this TED talk from industry aficionado Mark Ronson - who’s produced for the likes of Amy Winehouse & Elvis Presley - to understand exactly where sampling came from, and how it exists in the modern industry.

When it comes to the copyright laws surrounding sampling, it can often be misunderstood exactly what is condoned & condemned with regards to repurposing someone else’s song. Luckily, we’re here to remove the cloud to let you know exactly what you need to do legally if you plan on using someone else’s song in your piece.

Sampling An Original Piece & Avoiding Copyright Infringements

Typically, an artist will always need permission to sample an original composition within their work, and this is referred to as “clearing”. The sample must be cleared among every single original rights-holder of that track, so that remuneration can be split between them. This includes whoever owns the rights to the song (usually a publisher such as BMI & ASCAP) and who owns the rights to the “master recording”, which is usually the artist or label that they belong to.

Depending on the song, as well as the popularity & number of people involved in it, clearing a sample can be extremely difficult. So, it’s important to collect as much information about the original piece as possible; when it was made, who was involved, where it was distributed etc. before contacting rights-holders.

Unfortunately, if you are unable to obtain permission or clearance for a sample, it will be impossible to release the track without receiving legal troubles. Luckily, however, there are other options.

Sample Libraries: A Royalty-Free Alternative

If you’re looking to sample music in your work, turning your attention towards royalty-free sample libraries such as Splice or Loopmaster could be a productive option. These libraries require you to pay what is usually a monthly licensing fee, and in return you’re able to peruse and download from a vast library of completely royalty-free samples. In this case, royalty-free means that, as a result of you paying the licensing fee, you have complete permission to distribute, recontextualize and earn from these samples without legal trouble.

Sample libraries can include full compositions, but also vocal samples, drum loops, keys & FX and practically any & every facet of a song’s makeup. So, arguably, these libraries offer far more creative potential and versatility to the user, than they would have access to by simply “ripping” samples from copyrighted pieces.

To Conclude

Depending on your goals, there are plenty of methods when it comes to sampling music. What’s most important is that you have an early, fundamental understanding of exactly where your musical elements are coming from, so that there are no nasty surprises later down the line & once you’ve spent time, money & effort on a piece only to find out that you’ve used a sample that you can’t clear.

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