Legal sampling
Interview with composer Jeff Rona

Once upon a time there was sampling. Our music ancestors developed it in the first half of the 20th century, but its popularity grew mostly thanks to hip-hop. This genre was a fruitful area: here sampling gained its strength in 1970s, and from then on it expanded all over the music universe.

There are several sample sources. First one – is to record a piece of sound and then play it back from the hardware/software sampler. This sound may be a field-recording, musical phrases, voices, whatever: any material that you own.

However, sampling won recognition in a different way: the world enthusiasm to this particular affair was brought by a so-called “slicing” – grabbing the existing, previously released tunes or their parts in order to use them inside one’s own music. Probably, this method is easier than the first one – since you don’t have to record anything, but it’s more complicated from the legal point of view. Pretty often authors of the originals don’t even know that their music is being used in such a way, and mash-upers don’t have permission for this. Such situations may lead to legal proceeding in court.

When rap and hip-hop lovers in 70s and 80s used samples at their parties, as a live technique, nobody cared about it. But when samples appeared on commercial tracks (the genres were gaining popularity right at that time), more and more trials to defend intellectual property started to happen.

From that time sampling spread into almost all genres of modern music.

"However, even top artists sometimes do not follow the law, and we have a pleasure to witness scandals in this field."

Perhaps, many of you have seen several Youtube videos, where a producer recreates some tunes by Prodigy and shows samples used by the band. These short sounds are, at some point, a basis of Prodigy’s tracks and, moreover, are the most distinguishing parts of such hits as Smack My Bitch Up or Voodoo People.

If you haven’t seen these videos, we suggest you to do it, they’re very interesting:

Thus, Prodigy paid authors for each sample they used. Of course, most known artists pay for samples and have agreement, otherwise, a sample can’t be used (legally). However, even top artists sometimes do not follow the law, and we have a pleasure to witness scandals in this field.

Another popular source nowadays is sample/loop libraries, paid or free. Their use is very simple from the legal point of view: if you bought a library, you may compose 100% sample-based music without any claims. However, before the purchase you must read a license agreement each developer provides, so you know for sure all the rights. Free libraries are not an exception; a download page usually gives all legal information.  

Prodigy in the studio

If you got a sample illegally (your friend shared it, you downloaded it from torrents, cut it from someone’s song and so on), this may lead to problems, when the sample is recognized inside your music.

Most local or non-famous artists are sure that their music could only be heard by a small amount of people, and hope that copyright owner will never know about them. Of course, the bigger the artist the more chances he’d be caught.

You can get away with illegal sampling, because no one could find anything “alien” inside a new song. The amount of artists and their music is constantly increasing, libraries are updated all the time, so there’s no way to know all the records and samples in the world.

We’ve talked about sampling and its legal issues with Jeff Rona, an outstanding composer, musician and sound technology developer. Jeff composed dozens of scores for games, films, TV shows and even worked on the music for 2008 Olympic Games. He worked on projects by world known directors, such as Ridley Scott, Steven Spielberg, Steven Soderbergh; his cinematic discography on IMDb is very impressive: . Back in the days Jeff Rona was a key person designing MIDI - an irreplaceable standard for more than 30 years! Today Jeff is still very connected with the music technology, with one of his numerous directions being Kontakt libraries.

Jeff Rona

Backstage Secrets: Why is sampling so popular? What is it, is it a form of making a tribute, a source of inspiration, or just a way to make your work easier by taking a ready-to-go material?
Jeff Rona: All of those things. Sampling from older albums, as hip-hop and rap producers do, allows you to have a sound that is almost impossible to reproduce. The quality of the musicianship, performances, and recording are quite different than modern methods. And the history of hip-hop and rap has given way to a sound filled with cool attitude and "vibe". The history of sampling goes far beyond just hip-hop and rap, and the results are often unique and interesting.

BS: What is your own attitude towards sampling? Do you often use them?
JR: I virtually never sample from other people's albums. The legal aspects are too complicated, and it doesn't really help my work scoring films or games. Music created for moving pictures is much more complicated to deal with legal rights. It's different for just albums. On occasion I have sampled from albums, but I distort and process the sound so heavily that the original source in essence vanishes. It's completely different then the style of sampling where the source is very clear.

BS: How can an author of piece of music protect him or herself from other artists taking parts of his music without permission?
JR: I don't think there's a lot you can do. When you put your music out to the public, some people are going to look at it as an opportunity to sample. There are fingerprinting and watermarking technologies which make music more traceable, but if the sound is chopped up, filtered, or processed to any extent it becomes almost impossible to trace with technology.

BS: Let’s imagine: I’ve found a part in an existing song (guitar, drum or vocal phrase) and I want to use it my track. What should I do to do everything without legal issues? Whose permission should I ask for: artist’s or label’s? Could you give a plan of actions to benefit from this kind of partnership?
JR: If you are creating music that you plan to sell, license, or make available to the public via any digital music services such as Spotify, Pandora, or iTunes, then you really need to be sure you have the rights to all the sounds featured in your music. If the owner of the music you sampled finds out, and they often do, you will likely get asked to remove your music from all surfaces. Or you will get a letter from a lawyer making demands not only to remove your music, but pay damages to the original artist. Nobody wants that. If you're really serious about marketing your music, you need to take care of business in advance.

BS: How to best create a letter to a rights holder that will have a success? What points should it have?
JR: I've never written such a letter, but I imagine there are templates for this online. I do know that you will need to be very clear about how the sample will be used, and where it will be heard. You also need to be very clear about what you are sampling, and how much.

BS: Where can I find the information about the rights holder?
JR: You can go online and find the publisher record label of just about any artist. Performing rights societies have searchable database is to help find the owners of intellectual property rights. The goal is to find a publisher for the record label that owns the rights to that track.


BS: If a song to be chopped is quite old, let’s say from 50s or 60s, does it make it harder to deal with a rights holder?
JR: A lot of old record labels of going out of business, or the publishers have sold off the songs to other publishers. So tracking it down becomes a bigger challenge.

BS: Is there any difference in dealing with old and modern songs?
JR: As long as the song is still in copyright then there will always be the same issues. Much older tracks might be easier to deal with, or you could take the risk that the owners are dead or unavailable in other ways. You never know, and it's best not to assume that an old recording is completely available.

BS: If a sample belongs to quite a big label, is there any chance that your proposal will at least be read, as I guess their public email is full of massages, and nobody cares too much about reading them.
JR: My experience with bigger labels and publishers is they are very very slow. Especially if the request for samples is from a small poor unknown artist, it becomes a very low priority for them to handle the paperwork needed.

BS: What is the interest of a rights holder to let you use his material besides money, if there are any?

JR: I suppose in some cases they would be good exposure for a smaller artist being sampled by a bigger artist. I don't think that happens very often.

"I quickly learned the value of being as careful as possible with samples"

BS: What are average sums of money needed for this kind of deal? Could you name a range? What form of payment is usually used: single payment or royalties?
JR: I haven't had to clear a sample myself, so I don't know the range of costs. I do know that some samples are licensed for a fee, and others for a percentage of royalties. It all depends on how much trust the label or publisher has in you and what they think you might be able to earn with the music using their sample.

BS: Is the information about the deal always confidential? Could you share some cases, if possible?
JR: I've only had one accidentally uncleared sample become a problem. And I had no idea it was uncleared because of the source that I got it from. But I quickly learned the value of being as careful as possible with samples. I was also an expert witness in a lawsuit between two major artists and their record labels to discuss aspects of sampling. I worked on that for a year, and in the end it just was a huge mess!

BS: Are there any cases when you can’t get permission under no conditions?
JR: Absolutely. Many artists have no interest in hearing their music sampled, no matter how big the new use is.

BS: Does the level of an artist influence the deal, i.e. if I am a famous musician and ask for permission to use a sample, will it increase my chances to get positive answer? Or vice versa? Or is everybody equal? Does the fame influence the price of using a sample?
JR: Every license, whether for a song or a sample, will be negotiated based on the use of that material. So yes, a bigger artist or movie or game will be charged more for the use of music or sample than if it was something or someone much smaller. Everything is negotiable!

BS: How a rights holder finds out about the illegal use of his material?
JR: Sometimes by accident, sometimes using fingerprinting technology. Google also offers a service called "content ID" that finds materials on YouTube and lets the owners know if there is possible illegal use.

BS: If I am an absolutely unknown artist or known only inside my country or city and I’m pretty sure that nobody abroad, including a rights holder, will never hear about me and my songs, should I still care about the legal issues?
JR: If you produce music that is only for your own private use, there doesn't seem to be any point or reason to clear a sample. But if you put it out into the public, you really owe it to yourself to take care of things first.

BS: Today there is a huge amount of artists, djs, rappers, small bands who release some stuff and their amount is constantly increasing. Is there any way to check the upcoming songs in terms of using samples?
JR: Not that I know of.

BS: If the illegal use of a sample is found, who is going to respond: an artist or a label?
JR: If the sample is from an independent artist, then there's no one to handle it but the artist themselves. Record labels and publishing companies will always watch out for their interests and that no one is stealing from them.

BS: If a sample is processed with effects, sliced, stretched, changed so much that it is almost impossible to recognize it inside a new track – is it still an issue to care about?
JR: Some people might disagree with me, but if an artist makes a sample completely unrecognizable from the original source, then they have little or no reason to look into licensing.

BS: When you buy a DAW and it contains a bunch of sounds, loops, presets and so on, can you use it all in your music without any problems?
JR: Yes.

BS: Is it kind of a shame for a big artist to use sounds from libraries that may be recognizable by other users of this library?
JR: Sometimes. I do believe that if you want to sound different than all the other artists in your genre, then not using too many commercial samples and loops, or at least altering them significantly, is important. The minute you have a very recognizable sound that somebody's heard in another recording, it can make your work less original and less artistically valuable.


Fortunately, time marshes on as well as technologies. Probably, in the future all the upcoming music will be checked for third party sounds, some kind of service that scans a track and finds matches with the previous ones. If such service is possible and works correctly from technical and legal points of view – it is a huge positive step into the future. First, this would lead to an easy way of administering justice and to return the money to the original authors. Second, we hope that this may help to decrease the amount of the same banal music (based mostly on samples) surrounding us.

To sum it up, the only way to avoid any unwanted issues is to pay for libraries and contact a copyright owner in case of sampling some existing tunes. Otherwise, you take all the risks that may lead to negative consequences. Moreover, by purchasing an item you pay respect to the author, who spent time creating a certain sound.

Text: Anton Anru (Backstage Secrets)

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