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All you need to know about samples including clearing copyright and recording covers

Clearing a sample

If you include a sample of someone else's music in your own work, then you need to get permission to use it. There are two bits of copyright that you need to clear and, in many cases, neither of these will be owned by the artist who performed the track. The first is the copyright in the actual recording, which will usually be owned by the record company who originally released the track. The second is the copyright in the song. This will be owned by the writer of the original tune or, more likely, their publisher. In order to use a sample legally, you need to have clearance from the owners of both copyrights. It might sound like a headache, but if you approach the owner of the copyright and they think they might be able to make some money out of it, they'll probably be on board.

When you find a sample you want to use, the first thing to decide is whether you're going to clear it yourself or get someone else to do it for you. If you're signed to a record label or publishing company they may take care of it. If you don't have that luxury, you could use a specialist sample clearance company. If you're planning on clearing a sample yourself, then you'll need to get in touch with the record label and publisher involved. You should be able to find a contact from somewhere like The CMU Directory or get in touch with MCPS (Mechanical-Copyright Protection Society) - they look after copyright for virtually every record label and publisher you can think of. If a record has been released in the UK, MCPS will have up-to-date information about who owns what and how to get in contact with them.

The cost of a sample will vary massively, depending on the scale of the release, how popular the original track is and how well established an artist you are. Some record companies will want a flat-fee, known as a 'buy-out'. Others will negotiate a percentage of the profits, though they may also insist on an advance. The longer the sample, the more you may have to shell out.

Re-recording a sample

Unfortunately, on the publishing rights side of things, if someone says 'no' and refuses consent it's pretty much 'game over' for your sample clearance. Legally speaking you won't be able to proceed even if the people who have the recording rights have said 'yes'. However, if you get a 'yes' from the publishing rights owner but a 'no' from the recording rights owner (or they're asking for too much money), there is one thing you can do. You can re-create the sample by playing it yourself or getting someone else to perform it for you (there are companies who specialise in this). That way, you're not using the actual recording and so you're not infringing the record company's copyright. This doesn't get you out of the need to do a deal with the publishers, but it frees you from needing the record company's permission. Publishing companies will also want a royalty but not normally an advance.

Sampling speech

Using a sample of dialogue from a film or television programme will also require clearance. This is very hard to get, especially with films. Hollywood is very protective of its product, so a film company may simply refuse outright or demand such a high fee that it's not feasible to release the song. It's a similar case with TV. There are two copyrights to clear, one for the script and one for the recording of it in the film. So getting a friend to re-read the dialogue won't get you round the problem completely. To make things even more complicated actors often have clauses in their contracts which give them the right to be consulted for uses like this. In short, the whole business is pretty tricky. That's reflected in the extremely small number of records that you hear using samples of film and TV dialogue. If it were easy, a lot more people would be doing it.

Recording covers

If you want to record a cover of someone else’s song you will need to get permission from the copyright owner, which will either be the person who wrote the song or the person/company who the rights were assigned to. The easiest way to find out who owns the copyright is to search on databases like BMI, ASCAP, SESAC or look on the PRS For Music website. You need to get in touch with owner of the copyright to let them know when you plan to release the song, how many copies of the recording you will make, the name of your band and any other details about your plans. How much you'll have to pay will vary. You may have to pay a one-off fee or a percentage of any sales.