Clearing Samples: Legally Using Parts of Other Works in Your Compositions
Sampling, or using segments of other artists’ music in your own original works, can be an extremely creative technique for producers and composers. But without proper legal clearance, unauthorized sampling raises serious copyright infringement risks. Understanding the ins and outs of rights, licensing and fair use is essential for creatively incorporating samples while avoiding potential lawsuits. This guide examines common questions around legal sampling, strategies for obtaining permissions, setting rates and working through the licensing process to responsibly clear your compositions.
What Constitutes Sampling?
In the broadest sense, sampling means taking any sound, lyric or melody from an existing copyrighted recording and using it in a new musical work. Common sampling techniques include:
- Isolating and looping parts of a song like a drum beat, guitar riff or horn lick
- Lowering the pitch or tempo of an excerpt
- Extracting and repurposing vocal lines or lyrics
- Replaying melodic passages on other instruments
-Rearranging excerpted phrases into new patterns
In hip hop, electronic music and other genres, sampling is a core creative element. But no matter how you alter the sample or how small the portion, using an identifiable section of someone else’s recording or composition legally requires licensing clearance.
Why Get Sampling Clearance?
On a purely ethical level, creatives deserve to control usages of their work and receive fair compensation if it’s commercially repurposed. There are also pragmatic legal factors that make sample clearance essential:
Copyright protects recorded songs and their underlying compositions. Using identifiable samples without permission infringes on creators’ exclusive rights.
Labels and artists issuing recordings with uncleared samples face lawsuits over copyright damages, plus seizure of profits earned on the songs.
Most publishers require written licenses before releasing your songs containing samples.
Streaming Platform Rules
To monetize compositions on sites like YouTube or Spotify, you must document proper sampling clearances.
Audiences and industry peers will criticize those perceived as “sample thieves.”
For your creative, financial and reputational interests, follow protocol to license samples appropriately.
Best Practices for Sample Clearance
Securing legal sampling rights involves various steps:
Seeking Permissions Early
Start the licensing process during initial recording stages rather than waiting until finishing the track. This prevents potential delays in release down the road.
Identifying All Rights Holders
Do research to determine who owns recording rights, publishing rights and songwriter royalties for the underlying work. Often multiple parties are involved.
Making Direct Contact
Reach out to rights holders directly rather than relying on others like engineers or publishers to handle details. This shows good faith.
Fully Disclosing Intended Uses
Explain exactly how the sample will be used – looping, pitch changes, remixing etc. This helps assess fair rates.
Securing Terms in Writing
Get signed licenses from all necessary parties stipulating terms like fees, royalties, credits etc.
Modifying Works If Necessary
If license terms remain unresolved, modify the composition to remove uncleared elements. Don’t knowingly move forward without permission.
With the right agreements in place ahead of time, you can sample creatively without legal woes.
Fair Use & Public Domain Works
Two cases where sampling doesn’t require direct licensing are fair use of copyrighted material and using public domain works no longer under copyright.
Fair use protects limited re-use of copyrighted works for commentary, education, news reporting and other “transformative” purposes without permission. But for commercial music compositions, fair use rarely applies – you still need licenses.
Public Domain Works
Any recordings and compositions with copyrights expired – generally 95+ years old – are in the public domain. These can be sampled freely. But confirm public domain status, as rights can persist long beyond publication dates.
Don’t assume these exceptions permit you to sample without consequences. Get confirmation from an entertainment lawyer that licenses aren’t required.
Setting Sampling Fees & Royalties
Determining fair licensing fees for samples involves weighing several factors:
Prominence of Sample
More prominent usage warrants higher fees. A recurring backbeat loop pays more than subtle background melody line.
If sampling for a profit-generating recording, theatrical work or ad campaign, you pay more than for non-commercial use like student films.
Current Popularity & Recognition of Sampled Work/Artist
The more well known the sampled artist/song is, the higher potential licensing costs.
Duration of Sample
Longer sampled excerpts (10-15+ seconds) demand more compensation than brief snippets of just a couple seconds.
Publishing owning the Composition
Major publishers like Sony and Warner charge higher rates than independent entities.
Label Owning Master Recording Rights
Similar to publishing, big labels like Universal often charge more than indie ones.
Typical sampling licensing agreements also pay out backend royalties, often set around 10% of revenue generated by the new work containing the sample.
Reaching Out to Rights Holders
Once you’ve identified the parties you need licenses from, reaching out efficiently helps expedite the process:
Publishers and PROs
Many songs’ publishing rights are administered by companies listed in performing rights organization (PRO) repertories. They’re accustomed to fielding sampling clearance requests.
Direct to Artists
For works self-published by artists who retain rights, contact them or their management company directly. Provide full details.
Label Licensing Departments
Major labels have entire departments to handle sampling requests. They’re able to assess options quickly.
If you need help determining rights holders or negotiating terms, consider having your lawyer contact theirs.
Be professional and patient in all correspondence. Establishing cooperate relationships leads to more favorable outcomes.
Tips for Affordable Sample Clearance
The licensing fees for popular songs can quickly become cost prohibitive, especially for up-and-coming producers on indie budgets. Ways to reduce sampling costs include:
Sampling Less Mainstream Works
Opt for great but more obscure source material from back catalogs and underground artists/genres. Their samples often cost substantially less.
Keeping Samples Brief
Using very short segments of 1-3 seconds makes licenses more affordable than extended loops.
Seeking Complimentary Licenses
Some creators may grant one-time complimentary licenses if approached respectfully and the use context is purely creative.
Negotiate deals where rights holders get royalties from your song’s commercial success in lieu of high upfront fees.
Re-recording Parts Yourself
Rather than sampling the original recording, hire musicians to re-record key melodies/grooves for original derivatives you can clear easier.
With creativity and persistence, you can get great samples cleared for reasonable investments.
Seeking Alternatives to Sampling
If securing legal sampling clearance seems too costly or challenging in certain cases, alternatives to explore include:
Commissioning Original Recordings
Hire instrumentalists and vocalists to record custom parts or improvisations you can sample without licensing hurdles.
Using Pre-cleared Sample Packs
Purchase sample libraries from producers who’ve already properly licensed content for re-use.
Recording Original Isolations from Song Sources
Rather than sampling master recordings, use multitrack sessions to export isolated parts like vocal, drums, bass or guitar channels.
Creating Original Derivatives
Without actually sampling, re-play elements yourself in a transformative way. Or program convincing emulations with synths/samplers.
Seeking Inspiration Only
Study creative sampling techniques used by others, then develop your own original riffs and sounds influenced by (but not copying) the vibe.
With ingenuity, you can craft productions full of great “samples” without uncleared licensing.
Once you develop a solid catalog of original compositions, be sure to take steps to protect them from unlicensed use as samples by others:
Register All New Works with PROs
Quickly registering songs with ASCAP, BMI or other PROs gets your rights on record so you can claim royalties if sampled.
File Copyright Registration
While automatic, also formally registering copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office better enables you to sue infringers.
Use Watermarking Technology
Some software embeds audio watermarks inside files, traceable if illegally sampled.
Periodically search for your song titles on YouTube to catch unlicensed sampling uses that require takedowns.
Consult an Attorney
If you do discover sampling infringement, contact an entertainment lawyer to send formal cease and desist notices and pursue damages/settlements if useful.
Defending your rights upfront makes it easier to take action against “sample thieves” benefiting from your work.
For sample-based genres, sourcing great material from other works to remix and reimagine is part of the creative process. But failing to properly license samples has derailed many promising production careers. Educate yourself on copyright requirements, fair use policies, industry rate structures and clearance protocols so your art doesn’t get overshadowed by legal troubles. With the right permissions and licenses in place, you can push sampling creativity to new heights without watching your back or waiting for the cease and desist notice to arrive.
- 1 Clearing Samples: Legally Using Parts of Other Works in Your Compositions
- 1.1 Introduction
- 1.2 What Constitutes Sampling?
- 1.3 Why Get Sampling Clearance?
- 1.4 Best Practices for Sample Clearance
- 1.5 Fair Use & Public Domain Works
- 1.6 Setting Sampling Fees & Royalties
- 1.7 Reaching Out to Rights Holders
- 1.8 Tips for Affordable Sample Clearance
- 1.9 Seeking Alternatives to Sampling
- 1.10 Protecting Your Own Works from Unauthorized Sampling
- 1.11 Conclusion