How to Sample From Other Songs Without Getting Sued
Disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer; please don’t take this article as legal advice. Always consult a music and entertainment lawyer in your country for full details.
If you are a producer, you are probably familiar with sourcing samples for your tracks. Maybe you’ve heard that using a sample is legal if you keep it under a time limit, or that if there is no copyright on the song, you can use the sample free and clear.
This article dives into how to sample music legally (and for free in some cases) so that you don’t end up getting sued for copyright violation.
Earlier this year, a jury found that Katy Perry was in copyright violation for her song “Dark Horse” (2014) that infringed on the song “Joyful Noise” (2008) written and performed by Flame. While they don’t share the same theme, melody, or chord progression, they do share the same ostinato, or repeated melodic fragment that supports the main melody.
This is important because when we think of violating copyright, it is usually for big ideas, not short phrases. And yet, this is exactly what the lawsuit claimed was violated. The jury agreed. While the outcome is being hotly debated online, the case is now in appeals and the final decision will have repercussions for copyright law for years to come.
Which brings us to sampling music. If a short ostinato can be the decision for copyright violation and being sued, it is important to make sure you source your samples in a manner that won’t get you sued.
Second disclaimer: This article will show you methods of sampling music legally, but there is no way I can guarantee that you will never be sued for anything. Sorry.
How to Sample Popular Content
There are two main steps for getting legal permission to sample a song:
- License for use of the master recording (often owned by the record label)
- License for use of the composition (often owned by the publisher)
To contact the publishers, you can search these databases: ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, SOCAN, and Harry Fox. Contacting the label is a little more difficult, especially if you are using an older song and the label no longer exists! The quickest way to discover which label it was produced with, is to look at the album cover or to Google it.
Unlike cover songs, the label or publisher has no legal obligation to give you permission to use their song for a sample. Meaning, no one has to give you anything if they don’t feel like it.
The Bigger the Song the Bigger the Share
If and after you obtain permission and licenses from the publishers and label, you will enter into contract negotiation for financial shares of the song. Publishers and labels with each want an advance for permission to use the song, and will want a percentage of all revenues generated by the song. This number can vary based on the song, the popularity of the artist, and your popularity. Ariana Grande sampled a large part of the song “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music for her song “7 Rings” and is reported to pay 90% of all revenue generated to the original musical songwriters.
True or False: Under 6 Seconds Doesn’t Count
False. I hate to break it to you but no matter how long or short of a sample you have, you are not legally allowed to use it. Sorry.
How to Legally Sample
The easiest and most reliable method of getting a sample is to purchase one. There are sites popping up all over that specialize in creating samples and sample packs for you to purchase and use in your music creations. Loopmasters, Splice, and Native Instruments are some of the more popular sites. These can range in price anywhere from $20 for 100 samples to download and up to $300+ for loops and gear.
Free Sample Databases
New sample sites are appearing all the time. One of my favorites that I have used on my recent songs is from Looperman which has thousands of royalty free loops, samples, acapellas, and vocals.
Always ask the following questions before adding any samples to your song:
- Does this sample allow commercial use?
- Does this sample allow use if modified?
- Is this sample cleared for use in my country?
- Is there a max number of streams/downloads per license on this sample?
- Do I have the required licenses and permissions to use this?
If all else fails and you can’t find the sample that is exactly what you want, or, you do have a sample but you can’t get the permissions for it, pop over to the beat makers or song production sections on AirGigs and hire a musician to make exactly what you want! You get the sound you need AND you get to hire from one of the best musician databases around. Win win!
Feel free to share this article and leave a comment about what music business topic you’d like me to deep dive into next.