Sampling & Licensing

Recording Artists Project


Almost all types of creative content are covered by the copyright law.  This can be a confusing concept, since  the song itself (e.g., the music, melody, lyrics, rhythm, harmony) is copyrightable content, but so also is a sound recording of musicians performing that song.  There are two completely separate copyrights-- one in the song, and another in the sound recording of the song.  

At the outset it is the composer (or person(s) creating the sound recording) who must give permission to use a copywritten work.  Some composers assign the copyright or administration of his or her copyright to another person (the "publisher").

Permission to use (reproduce, adapt, distribute, perform, etc.) a work subject to copyright is typically obtained by a license. There are actually three separate types of licenses that might be needed, depending on the situation:

  • a "performance license" -- to publicly perform a song or to internet broadcast or stream a song or sound recording
  • a "synchronization license" -- to "sync" a sound recording with videos, movies or other visual media (or "master use license" of a sound recording)
  • a "mechanical license" -- to make physical objects containing a copywritten work, e.g. to make CDs

Sampling (taking a portion, or sample, of one sound recording and reusing it in a different song or piece) is a frequent practice, and the law on it is evolving.  But the basic principles of copyright still apply.  If you use a copyrighted work without authorization, the copyright owner may be entitled to bring an infringement action against you.

So for example, to perform someone else’s song at a club you’d need a performance license from the songwriter's publisher (often obtained from one of the PRO's (performing rights organizations: BMI, ASCAP, etc.), or perhaps the club has a blanket license from the PRO permitting performance of all the songs in that PRO's catalogue. To make a recording of that song you’d need a mechanical license from the songwriter's publisher. To make a music video of that song would also require a synchronization (sync) license.  And if someone wanted to sample a bit of your recording to use in his/her own new recording, that person would require a mechanical license from both the songwriter or publisher and from you (or whoever might control the copyright in the sound recording; often, the performer’s “label”).  

Complicated?  Yes, it is.  And we can help you sort it out.

Last modified: July 30, 2013

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