Sampling has been practiced in music for ages. Back in the 1940s, Pierre Schaeffer, experimental French composer and musique concrète originator, was the first artist to reuse sound portions of other artists’ records in his own compositions. This technique has become widespread and is still in active use today. According to Tracklib, over half of 2021’s top albums feature samples of rhythm, melody, speech and even entire bars of music from other songs.
With such an extensive use not only in music but also on social media like TikTok, it’s seems safe to assume that sampling doesn't require clearance. Alas, it cannot be farther from the truth.
One of the most popular myths is that any musician can cut out and use pieces from any songs as long as the portion is shorter than 6 seconds, or 11 seconds, or 15 seconds. This belief caused a lot of legal and financial trouble. Sampling copyrighted material without permission is a straight road to court.
The question at hand is how to get permission to sample someone else’s sound, how much of ordeal it is and whether it’s even worth it. Let’s go over the essential facts about sample clearance and the steps you need to take to secure the permission.
Step #1. Prepare Info About the Sample
Before contacting copyright owners to negotiate clearance, you need to put together information about the song part you want to use and how exactly you plan to handle it.
Here is what you should know:
- Sample selection. What part of the rights holder’s song you want to sample.
- Sample length. Specific number of seconds you want to feature in your song.
- Sample use frequency. How many times you want to use the sample in your track.
Remember that even if you change the sample so much it barely resembles the original, it still must be cleared. Whether you chop it, change the pitch or else, the sample is someone else’s intellectual property regadless.
Step #2. Find the Copyright Owners
In order to legally use a sample from an existing song, you need to two different permissions:
1) Clearance from the copyright owner of the song (usually it’s the music publisher or songwriter).
2) Clearance from the copyright owner of the master recording (usually the recording company or label).
You might have already dabbled into music law like learning how to copyright your own music, legally distribute mashups and cover songs, and assume that you’re well versed in the legal aspects of the music industry. If so, we want you to know that sampling doesn’t work the same exact way.
The two sampling licenses are actually compulsory which means that the copyright owners don’t have to grant you permission to sample! Moreover, they are free to dictate the usage terms, and you have no other way but to either agree to the terms as they are presented or back off.
🟡 How to Find the Music Publisher
Typically, the music publisher is the easiest to find, so let’s start there. Simply search the name of the song you’re sampling in the databases of performing rights organizations, such as:
- Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI)
- American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP)
- Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada (SOCAN)
- Harry Fox Agency (HFA)
If your search doesn’t yield any results, try calling these organizations and ask for the song indexing department.
🟡 How to Find the Master Owner
Once you contacted the publisher and obtained sample clearance, it’s time to do the same with the song master owner. Here is how to go about it:
- Ask the music publisher.
- Ask the recording company that released the song.
- Search online. Look up online record store or use the Phonolog music reference library.
Finding the master owner is tricky because record companies ofter sell their copyright to others. The rights may also revert back to the original artist, so once you think the you’ve finally placed the owner, you find yourself back on the search track.
Step #3. Contact the Copyright Owners
Collect the information from the Step #1 and hit up the owners. It’s recommended to include the original song and your track with the sample so that the publisher and songwriter know exactly how their intellectual property is going to be used.
If there’s no submission form on the master owner’s website, reach out to them through their business or licensing departments.
🟡What if you can’t get in touch with the copyright holders?
If you don’t get any response or get refused, there is nothing much to do about it. Sampling is a new revenue stream for the original artists, so it’s usually in benefit to work things out for all parties involved. Regardless, many publishers are reluctant to grant sampling clearance to independent artists they’ve never heard of.
You can always offer to pay publishers upfront to make them more inclined to speak to you or hire a sampling consultants to avoid the whole ordeal of finding the owners and negotiating terms. However, both are costly and hardly an option for unsigned artists.
For independent musicians, i’s best to start the entire process with finding copyright holders that are actually happy to clear samples, it will save a lot of time and guarantee positive outcome. There are also services that offer already cleared samples and royalty free music, like Tracklib and Splice.
In conclusion, the sample clearance situation is quite simple – legally it doesn’t matter how short and/or unrecognizably edited a sample is, if the original song is copyrighted, you must clear it to use it.
The process can take several months, a lot of money and effort. Using samples without permission is potentially an even more long and costly process, considering all legal fees, lawyer paycheck, etc. It’s more worthwhile to try alternative ways to obtain samples for your songs, especially if you’re on a budget.