If you use samples of other people's music in your own commercially released music, you should first get legal permission. The process of getting permission from the owners of the sampled music is referred to as "sample clearance." Failure to get the proper permission could lead to serious consequences: lawsuits or the inability to distribute your music to the public. As a musician, you obviously will want to try to avoid both outcomes. Fortunately, the sample clearance process can be fairly straightforward, depending on the music involved.
In general, sample clearance is required only if you plan to make copies of your music and distribute the copies to the public. If you are just playing for your friends in a small group, you likely do not need to worry about copyright litigation from a large music studio.
Sample clearance is generally not required if:
Many artists releasing their own recordings cannot obtain clearances, either because they cannot get the music publisher to respond to their calls and requests or because they cannot afford the fees.
What is the risk? Using a sample without clearance is always risky. However, as a practical matter, if you sell recordings only at shows and do not 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 will have to deal with sample clearance.
Reducing the risks. If you use an uncleared sample, you can lower your risks by:
If you decide to use samples without clearance, you might be in the clear in certain situations. Under the copyright law, you do not have to obtain sample clearance if your sample is so altered that it doesn't infringe, or your use is a fair one.
If you alter a sample so that an average listener cannot hear any substantial similarities between your work and the sample, there is no violation of the law.
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:
Do not believe the widespread myth that "less than two seconds is fair use." There is no "magic number" like this. Also, some courts apply a 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 will have to hire an attorney to represent you in court.
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:
To learn how to get the proper sample clearance, see How to Obtain Sample Clearance.
Unfortunately, there is 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 may create 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.
Nowadays, there are significant roadblocks for small independent labels who want to acquire sample clearance. For example:
The owner of the master recording will want:
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).
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 are 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. Do not 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 does not grant the rights you need, contact the soundware manufacturer to see if you are eligible for a refund.
In short, the sample clearance process can be a hurdle for many newer musicians. But fortunately, there are many resources to help you to ensure that you are not violating any copyright laws. For more information, see Rich Stim's Music Law: How to Run Your Band's Business (Nolo), a comprehensive guide to all the legal issues your band may face.