Sampling Music: Even One Second is TOO Much

Did you know that sampling even one second of another musician’s work is illegal?

Sampling is the act of taking a portion, or sample, of one sound recording and reusing it as an instrument or a sound recording in a different song or piece. Have you ever heard a song and thought it meshed well with what you were creating and wanted to put it in your song? Be cautious! There is no “unwritten” rule to when sampling is legal without permission; one second is enough to get you into legal trouble.  You must obtain the license to use it!!

In order to legally sample another’s work, one must obtain “sample clearance,” or the process of gaining permission from the owners of the copyrighted music. First, you must obtain clearance from the copyright owner of the melody and lyrics (the song), who is usually the music publisher. Second, you must obtain clearance from the copyright owner of the master recording (which is the actual sound that’s been fixed to a recording medium), who is usually the recording company.

The first step is locating the music publisher. This is usually the easiest to do and some places to start looking are performing rights organizations, such as Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI) or the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP). These organizations collect funds for public performances of the original artists’ work.  You can also visit the following websites:,, and Once you locate the publisher, contact them to find out how to obtain permission.

The second step is finding who owns the master recording. This can be difficult, as finding who owns the copyright to the master recording can be complicated. Maybe the recording company owns the rights, or maybe they have been sold to another party, or released to the artist. Be diligent! This is only necessary if you decide to sample the master recording and can be circumvented by creating your own recording of the song, if possible (BUT permission from the music publisher is still necessary).

What if you want to sample a song that contains samples of other songs? Well, you must obtain permission for the song you wish to sample plus permission for all of the underlying songs in that work. It is a very convoluted and complicated process, but that’s just the way it is.

The landmark case which pushed sampling into illegal territory was Grand Upright Music, Ltd. V. Warner Bros. Records Inc., 780 F. Supp. 182 (S.D.N.Y. 1991), which created the standard for sampling without permission. There is no legal way to do it without permission. Artists like Girl Talk, who samples music from numerous artists without permission is one of the exceptions, he has never been brought to court for sampling without permission, but he is walking on thin ice.

Sampling illegally can lead to disastrous consequences: you may be taken to court, made to pay profits and damages from your recording, have all copies removed from the market, and may be criminally prosecuted. It is in your best interest to explore all options before deciding to sample another’s intellectual property. Although this is not an expansive and complete guide to sampling music, I hope that you are a little more aware of what it takes to mix-up your art.

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Image Credit:

Cannon_Mike by Michael Cannon