Sampling Music and Copyright

Written by Cassine Bering | January 6, 2023


Stop what you’re doing, hands off the MPC and close that dodgy YouTube converter! Sampling is an artform but is it a crime? We’re here to set the record straight:

Am I breaking the law?

If you sample an audio recording without the express permission of the owner, you are infringing the owner’s copyright. This means when you sample music or rip audio from TV, film or social media and use them in your songs, if you haven’t got permission from the rights holder, you are infringing their copyright. These are known as ‘uncleared samples.’

Will I go to prison?

Copyright infringement is both a criminal and civil cause of action so using an uncleared sample is a crime. However, the vast majority of copyright infringement is never pursued in the criminal courts and people generally do not go to prison for it. It is usually treated as a private dispute in which the party who has been infringed makes a claim against you. Prison is not a remedy in civil actions, but financial compensation is.

Can I be sued if I haven’t made any money?

Yes. Damages aren’t limited to what you have made. The loss suffered to the other side is also taken into account, such as damage to the other side’s reputation. There isn’t a set method to valuing this.

What if I only use a second of a sample?

Even if the sample is a fraction of a second in length, it can infringe copyright. The law on the issue is often misinterpreted because the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 requires there to have been copying of a ‘substantial part’ for copyright infringement to take place. However, the meaning of substantial part doesn’t mean the amount of the sample that is used but the quality.

What if the sample is unrecognisable?

Using a sample without permission is infringement but if you flip the sample to the point it is unrecognisable, the sample’s origins are less likely to be discovered and you are less likely to be sued.

How we can help?

It is possible to clear a sample by getting permission from the copyright holder. We can assist by making contact with the rights holder, making a formal request to use the sample and negotiating heads of terms with the other side. We can also draft the sample clearance agreement.

Written by Cassine Bering – Solicitor

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