To Sample Or Not To Sample


Mail from the courts and jail 

Claim I stole the beats that I rail... 

Public Enemy, “Can We Get A Witness,” 
It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
(Def Jam/Columbia Records, 1998).

The act of sampling was originally developed by experimental musicians who physically manipulated tape loops or vinyl records on a phonograph. By the late sixties, sampling influenced the production of psychedelic rock and jazz fusion. With the arrival of Postmodern era, the technique of reproduction or recreation was reflected in all forms of art. Music was no different, the rise of hip hop and electronic music in the eighties made the art of sampling vogue. Early musicians from the good old 40’s and 60’s often did not bother getting permission from copyrighted owners for the samples they were using. Even when hip-hop was contained within the block parties in Bronx no formal measures were taken for sampling music. Only when hip-hop arrived as a mainstream genre of music in the 80’s it became necessary to obtain legal rights. 

Today, from mass music that tops the billboards like Drake’s Hotline Bling with instrumental based on a speeded up sample from Timmy Thomas’s Why Can’t We Live Together to indie foundsound artists who create musical collages by collecting bits and pieces from mainstream media and subvert it for political statement; the contemporary music scene has embraced sampling. But it still remains to be legally controversial. Critics argue that sampling is simply theft, an abuse of somebody else’s intellectual property. But there is no denying that the art of sampling has given us some of the most innovative music. 
For an amateur musician, finding the right way to sample music can be a complicated and expensive task. To get a sample cleared of a copyrighted audio, the artist would need two different licenses. One for the usage of the master recording, often owned by a label and one for the usage of underlying composition, controlled by publisher or songwriter. The label who owns the master recording may ask for an up-front fee. A royalty amount is also expected to be paid to the copyright owner. 

But what if an artist cannot get hold of the copyright owner? More often than not, major labels and publishers do not bother independent artists for sample clearance. If your aren’t signed, you get an easy pass. Which is probably why myths about sampling laws are so prevalent. One of the most common myth is that you can legally use a copyrighted song if the sample is shorter than 6, 15 or 30 seconds. Here’s a reference to debunk this claim – Vanilla Ice song Ice Ice Baby borrowed bass line from Under Pressure; the sample was barely 3 seconds long but that didn’t deter Bowie and Queen’s team to threaten copyright infringement which subsequently resulted in an out of court financial settlement between them. 

An unsigned artist may stay under the radar. But if their work gets popular enough to get noticed, they may have to face tedious consequences. It’s not a far stretch to say that songs can gain popularity overnight thanks to the viral nature of social media. To avoid the drama, one can always create an original musical element to replace the sample. But if an artist is adamant on using copyrighted material, there is always an option of re-recording the sample. Then the copyrighted owner can be bypassed and the artist will just need to deal with the publisher. To find the publisher, search the song you are sampling on ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, SOCAN, and Harry Fox.  Locating the label that owns the copyright can be a little more hard-work. Look at the liner notes of a CD, or when in doubt – ask the internet!
Fair use of copyrighted material without the permission from the owner is usually permitted in cases of commentary, criticism and parody. For example, a music review quoting Bob Marley is within the fair use. Parodies and satirical reproduction are allowed an extensive use of original material in order to evoke a similar experience as the original. However, one must bear in mind that the laws of copyright defer from region to region. 

Besides the complicated process of getting a sample cleared, the art itself has unequivocally elevated the music industry. Sampling is here to stay and will take the musical course forward in new and exciting ways.  

Comment below to let us know about your experiences with sampling. 

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