Music Sampling: A Quick Introduction by Greg Melchin

Music Sampling: A Quick Introduction

By Greg Melchin

Sampling has been a big part of music since the 1980s. Lots of artists do it, from hip-hop and R&B to EDM to random mash-ups, and most of the time it’s not worth anybody’s time to try and stop it. But what does copyright law  actually say about samples? Is it fair dealing? Or does copyright law mean, in the immortal words of Hammer, “U can’t touch this?”

The first people to use sampling were experimental contemporary-classical composers. With the birth of hip-hop, legal challenges started proliferating around samples and copyright infringement mostly in American courts, where the law is mostly similar to Canada.

Decisions have been varied. Rick James sued MC Hammer for a sample of “Super Freak” in “U Can’t Touch This,” but it was settled by Hammer listing James as a co-writer (which is common practice these days). The Beastie Boys were sued for using a six-second flute sample in “Pass The Mic” and it was found to be fair use. But NWA was sued for using a two-second guitar sample from a Funkadelic’s “Get Off Your Ass And Jam” in “100 Miles And Runnin’,” and it was found to be copyright infringement, even though it was pitch-shifted and nearly unrecognizable. The Verve lost 100 percent of their royalties for “Bitter Sweet Symphony” by using an unauthorized sample of an orchestral cover of a Rolling Stones song.

If you plan to make money off of your recording, clear samples before you use them. This includes both the copyright for the song and for the sound recording. Clearing samples is a time-consuming process, and sometimes the sampling won’t be used. To secure a license for the song, contact the song’s publisher, which can be found through the SOCAN, ASCAP, or BMI websites. The license for the sound recording is a bit more complicated. Often the record company would have held the rights  originally, but sometimes the company sells it, goes out of business, or the rights revert to the artist. You can also contact the artist directly.

Often the publisher and record company will want to know how you plan to use the sample. You will need to record the whole song with the sample first, and then the publisher and record company would decide whether to let you use it. They may also put restrictions on how you use it. One other option is to re-create the sample, thereby removing the need for a sound recording license.

Many indie DJs and hip-hop artists get around this problem by finding free-to-use samples on the internet. There are different sites offering the samples but always read the terms and conditions carefully.

*This article was published as legal information. This is not legal advice and should you have further questions regarding music sampling, we strongly suggest speaking to a lawyer.