The Sin of Sampling
On December 17th, 1991, Judge Kevin Thomas of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York issued an injunction against Warner Bros. Records that changed the direction of Hip Hop music forever. The case was, of course, over sampling and copyright infringement. Biz Markie, a signed artist of Warner Bros. Records (and inventor of the slang “Oh, Snap!”) used a sample from the song “Alone Again (Naturally)” by singer-songwriter Gilbert O’Sullivan. The case set a precedent for the music industry and created a wave of legal woes still felt by Hip Hop producers to this day. It was ruled that 100% of all samples must be cleared first by the original copyright owners before any third party use.
The effects on the Hip Hop music industry were tremendous. No longer were Hip Hop songs molds of popular songs or samples from well known artists creatively arranged to a beat, they took the form of keyboard tunes, synths, and original melodies. Now some may say that original music is not a bad thing at all, and I would agree. But, there is something timeless and pure about a sample based beat that Hip Hop purists like myself long for. Of course, now a days not all beats are sample free. Label funding for sample clearance and artists permissions still leave room for a wide array of sample based songs. But for small, raw, and poor artists, no such friendships or funding exists.
Sampling still goes on for smaller artists, but mostly against copyright laws. Whether in the secular or Christian industry, it is still prevalent and happening. So why aren’t all these people getting sued or going to jail? Will you get in financial trouble if you do it? Well, it’s not exactly a capitol offense. It would be good to compare it to jay-walking or making a u-turn in the city. You’re not going to get in trouble for it, but if you cause an accident you will be ticketed. A lot of small artists use tons of samples and even make plenty money off their music and are never in any trouble. The general understanding is: nobody is really going to go after you unless you start to take serious cash to the bank. The most that generally happens is a careful duplication company won’t replicate your CD if they hear popular samples or someone won’t buy your beat. However, in the event you strike it big, eyes will be on you and ears on your music.
Some of us have the moral conviction to adhere to the very detailed precepts of the common law, and indeed it is more scriptural than not. Titus 3:1-2 (NASB) “…be subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good deed, to malign no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing every consideration for all men.” Sampling is actually illegal, so the question must be asked, “Is it proper for a Christian to break the law?” For sake of brevity and because that is not the purpose of this article, I must leave that decision for you the reader to personally examine (along with all the other aspects of your faith).
Without a doubt, some of you will chose to continue to sample. If you go this route and have absolutely any talent, I suggest you accurately and completely write down the samples you use along with all copyright information. If you sell the beat, you will want to notify the buyer before hand and provide all sample information in the case of some future legal action. If you create your own beat and publish a song on your own, it is good to keep the sample information on the slight chance you win American Idol and start selling thousands of CDs at a time. Once you have money in your pocket and gain attention, believe that the sampled artists or labels are going to want their cut. If you ever do decide to clear your samples, a good resource is the Harry Fox Agency. They specialize in mechanical licensing for small, independent artists. For more information visit www.hairyfox.com.
So let’s say you’re a producer who wants to use samples, but your conviction is that it’s wrong, you’re afraid of getting your pants sued off, and to top it off you are too poor to purchase sample rights. Here are a few ways to legally sample:
1. “The Dr. Dre” also known as “interpolation”. This is when you actually recreate the sample you want for use in your own music. By playing the same melody yourself or seriously manipulating your sample, you avoid the burden of having to get sample clearance. For example, if you want to sample your favorite AC/DC song, you pay your older brother to play the melody on his guitar at your studio. Then you take the sample your brother played and make your beat.
2. “The Moby” also known as “public domain”. Sometimes finding a sample that is copyright free is the way to go. Public domain samples mean that the music is generally considered part of the common culture or our intellectual heritage and there is no claim to copyright over its use. For example, you will not get sued if you want to sample the smash hit “Ring around the Rosy” for your song. Of course there are better examples, but you get the point. I would only warn against this type of sampling if it is from a foreign source since foreign laws on their own music might not be (and probably isn’t) the same as ours. My rule of thumb is to make sure the artist is long dead or the company who published the song has ceased to exist. Generally, any music with an expired copyright is public domain.
3. “The Respected Artist” also known as sampling people you know. This is my personal favorite and something I do a lot when I sample. If you are an established artist in your city and are eclectic in nature, chances are you have a kinship to musicians in your area. If these artists have any music out, especially independent music, sampling from them may be a way to make a dope song AND build friendship. Instead of seeing your sampling as stealing, a small but talented independent musician or band may take it as a complement! So go ahead and buy the $10 CD or LP from your local reggae or punk group. You may find some amazing sounds on it to sample. When you are finished, give them a copy of your track. If you’re a stickler, get written permission from the band before you use their music for sampling. It’s surely easier and cheaper than sampling famous artists.
Illegal Sampling is probably not going to get you into the trouble that you have heard it will. If you ever become recognized enough that it could get you in trouble, you will have already been informed and probably already have started getting sample clearance. Remember to research these issues for yourself before you publish your music. And, whatever you choose to do, just remember that nothing is worth breaking your personal convictions.