It’s a topic that musicians ask about every day. Do I have to register and/or pay to use a DJ_Premier_Digging33portion of someone else’s music. YES. Of course you do. Do you want your original music used without your name ever being mentioned? Not to mention that you’ll never see a penny on the tune if it hits. Don’t think that no one will notice if you steal portions of music for a tune that ends up with tons of radio play. It’s not worth the legal hassle to make up your own rules about sampling just because it isn’t convenient to contact the record label who published the tune and the artist who wrote it. Below is the most up to date info on sampling from attorney Rich Stim:

When Sample Clearance Is Required…

In general, sample clearance is required only if you plan to make copies of your music and distribute the copies to the public.

Sample clearance is generally not required if:

  • You are just using the sampled music at home.
  • You are using the sample in live shows. This is because, usually, you are not making copies and the owner of the venue pays the blanket license fees to performing rights organizations such as Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI) or American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP).
  • You plan to distribute copies to the public but meet one of the following: (1) an average listener would not notice the similarities between your end product and the sample, or (2) your use of the sample falls under the “fair use” doctrine. For more information on these, see “Defending a Lack of Sample Clearance,” below.

Operating Without Sample Clearance

Many artists releasing their own recordings can’t obtain clearances — either because they can’t get the music publisher to respond to their phone calls or because they can’t afford the fees.

What is the risk? Using a sample without clearance is always risky.  However, as a practical matter, if you only sell recordings at shows and don’t make more than one thousand copies, your risk is reduced. The owner of the source recording will be unlikely to learn of your samples. However, if your recording becomes popular at clubs or on the radio, or if a major label wants to pick it up, you’ll have to deal with sample clearance.

Reducing the risks. If you use an uncleared sample, you can lower your risks by:

  • making it unrecognizable
  • not using the sample as the groove or hook
  • burying it in the mix, and
  • not using the title of the source music in the title of your song.

Defending a Lack of Sample Clearance

If you decide to use samples without clearance, you might be in the clear in certain situations. Under the copyright law, you don’t have to obtain sample clearance if:

Your Sample Use is Not Infringing

If you alter a sample so that an average listener cannot hear any substantial similarities between your work and the sample, there’s no violation of the law.

Your Use is a Fair Use

What is fair use? Fair use is the right to copy a portion of a copyrighted work without permission because your use is for a limited purpose, such as for educational use in a classroom or to comment upon, criticize, or parody the work being sampled.

Factors in determining fair use. Generally, when reviewing fair use questions, courts look for three things:

  • You did not take a substantial amount of the original work.
  • You transformed the material in some way.
  • You did not cause significant financial harm to the copyright owner.

Don’t believe the widespread myth that “less than two seconds is fair use.” It’s not true. Also, some courts apply this fair use rule only to the musical composition copyright, not the sound recording copyright. For example, one judge ruled that any musical sampling violated the sound recording copyright.

You can use the above arguments in order to defend yourself against a lawsuit for sampling without permission. The problem: You won’t know for sure which way the judge will rule. And, most likely you’ll have to hire an attorney to represent you in court

When Possible, Seek Permission

You’ll be on safer legal ground if you seek permission, especially if you have a record contract that puts the burden of sample clearance on your shoulders. Such contracts usually contain an indemnity clause — which means that if you and the record company are sued, you must pay the record company’s legal costs. Ouch!

Note that when you sample music from a pop recording, you need two clearances:

  • one from the copyright owner of the song, who is usually a music publisher, and
  • one from the copyright owner of the master tapes, which is usually a record company.

Publicity Releases

There’s an extra wrinkle if you use a sample for purposes of selling or endorsing a product (for example in a Volkswagen ad), and the sampled artist is identifiable. In cases like this, you also need to get the source artist’s consent. That’s because the ad creates the impression of an endorsement. Without the consent, the source artist could sue for what is known as the violation of the “right of publicity.” (The same would be true if you imitated the source artist’s voice without sampling it.) So when you use a sample for an advertising agency or other commercial client, be aware that a third type of clearance or “release” may be necessary.

Roadblocks for Small Labels

Nowadays, there are significant roadblocks for small independent labels who want to acquire sample clearance. For example:

  • Some owners of source music won’t deal with independent or unsigned artists. “A lot of times if it’s self-released, we say come back when you have a deal,” says a sampling rep at one major music publisher.
  • Often the copyright owners will want to hear a recording that shows how much of the source you intend to use and how you intend to use it. That means you have to do your recording first, without permission. If you then can’t get permission, a lot of hard work will have gone to waste.
  • Many small labels cannot afford the steep sample clearance rates. While there are no standard fees, the music publisher usually wants:
    • an up-front “advance” payment (which could be anywhere between $250 and $5,000), and
    • a percentage of the song income (usually between 15% and 50%).

    The owner of the master recording will want:

    • an up-front payment (usually at least $1,000), and
    • a “rollover.” A rollover is a payment that’s made when a certain number of copies have been sold.

    Sometimes, instead of a rollover, the owner of the master will ask for a portion of future record royalties (although sampling consultants advise against this practice).

Pre-Cleared Sample Discs

Sample CDs — recordings that contain sounds and riffs specifically sold to be used in samplers — can be a good alternative for small labels. Most sample discs are “pre-cleared,” which means that by buying the disc, you’re automatically granted permission for music usage without the payment of any further fees.

However, the permitted use of pre-cleared samples may vary from one disc to another. Don’t assume you can use the sample in whatever way you like. Review the documentation that comes with the CD for any license information. Most sample disc makers grant the user a “nonexclusive license” to use the samples –which means you, and everyone else, have permission to use the music. However, with a sample CD you don’t buy the right to redistribute the samples, only the right to use them in musical works.

If you find that your purchase of the disc doesn’t grant the rights you need, contact the soundware manufacturer to see if you’re eligible for a refund.”

So, how do you go about getting the samples cleared?You have to research the original songwriter and then find the publisher. Here are some resources to help with that process.


All music Guide


Who sampled

Here is BET’s List of The 25 most influential Hip Hop Samples

Note: Always ensure the record label and publisher(s) have the authority to grant permission for use of the sample, meaning they are the current copyright holders of the work. Also make sure the grant of rights extends to future owners of your new version (such as future publishers). If you have been given permission to sample the original composition, you are well on your way to obtaining a license. Since sampling is not governed by statutory law, it is up to you and the record label and/or publisher to determine the terms of your individual agreements. The following are important negotiation points of clearing a sample.

Step #3: Points of Negotiation Take some notes, folks. These points could potentially affect your song for its entire copyright term- your whole life plus 70 years! And you thought researching for Step #1 felt like a long time. 1.  Ownership of the new version and royalties split – Determine the extent of the copyright share the record label and/or publisher will have in your new version: partial, whole, or none at all. – If the copyright will be shared, determine the royalties split.

2.  Extent of usage – Determine if you can only use the sample in the recorded version, or if use extends to remixes, live performances, or other possible applications.

3. Payment options There are no standard rates for samples, so the figures vary widely. These are different payment options that can be negotiated:

Flat fee Example: one-time payment of $400 with no further payment obligations

Rolling fee paid over time Example: $150 initial payment, $150 upon release, and $100 after 50,000 units sold

Ongoing royalty fee Example: 15% of the statutory mechanical rate for every unit sold

4.  Crediting the original composition – Determine the extent of crediting the original composition for press, advertisements, on your album, etc. – Determine who will be included in the credits such as composer(s), artist(s), publisher(s), record label, etc.

Still think sampling is easy? There are so many legal issues to consider when sampling. Maybe it’s best to write your own material and avoid all of this. Sampling is different from doing a cover tune. When you cover someone Else’s music, you pay a mechanical licensing fee and register the tune. Since that is another whole can of worms, let’s save it till next week, yes? The bottom line is, you must register music you use that you DID NOT write. Don’t wait and find out after you get a song in heavy rotation that you violated copyright law. It’s called The Music Business for a reason.


5 Responses to Sampling

  1. diety says:

    I always spent my half an hour to read this website’s content every day along with a
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  2. BernieCap says:

    Excellent information Ghezzi, i look forward to reading about doing covers, ah yes, that can of worms…lol

  3. Philip Scales says:

    Every musician should take this article to heart. I spent about a month gathering free samples (no such thing unless one creates their own sample) and while doing such noticed the fine print…”some samples may have copyright protection”. This popped my bubble as I had already recorded material and the sample used was a (thunderstorm/rain/thunder) on the track. I made a distinct determination that this sample would potentially present costly legal issues if first and foremost…and like the article pointed out…was placed in serious rotation and/or elicited any label/distribution/licensing interest. Consequently, I made a decision to avoid the potential down falls and…just bone up…and do the extra work…well…it’s music and ones passion…and really…when one loves what they do…it doesn’t feel like work!
    Your article is one of the most concise and to the point I have run across…I wish in retrospect I had read this about the time I downloaded three cd’s of samples!!!

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