Definition - 'Taking a section from a CD ,record, or video, editing it to your own required length and adding it to one of your own tracks'. Sound On Sound (June 1997)
Any sample used on a song will be part of something which is in copyright, and which someone else owns. Using it is an infringement of copyright law, or more accurately, it infringes the rights of the owners of the piece used. It doesn't matter how long or short the sample is either, if its on there its an infringement.
There are 3 infringements taking place if you use a sample: The use of the intellectual work which was written by someone and has a copyright owner (not necessarily the original author); the use of the recording, which is owned by someone (usually a record company); and there is also an infringement of moral rights with respect to using someone's work in a fashion they perhaps do not like. Basically you need permission to use a sample because of all 3 types of infringement - and you might get sued if you don't!!
There are certain things you can do however, if indeed you feel compelled to use someone elses work in your own music. In the UK there is an organisation called the Mechanical Copyright Protection Society (MCPS) - which is mentioned is several places on this site, and discussed in some detail on the copyrights page (man, there's even a link to their website!!). MCPS has a dept dedicated solely to this topic - called The Sample Clearance Department. What they do is find out who owns a piece of music you might want to sample, and provide you with means of contacting the copyright owners. They don't, however, negotiate deals with copyright owners for you. They are experts in the field and so can provide the best advice. You have to be a member of MCPS though to get this service.
How many copies before clearance is needed?
Any copies of a song which contain samples of copyright work really should be cleared. It makes sense to most certainly get clearance if a song with samples is gonna be manufactured and released. Even using the sample in the studio, on the original master before copies have been made, constitutes infringement - although most wouldn't seek clearance unless the track was destined for release.
What happens if you get caught
I'm not gonna get all moralistic here but it seems that if you are trying to get a hit and you use a sample, you'll almost certainly get caught - someone is going to notice the sample sooner or later. On the other hand, if your music is more esoteric and unlikely to get huge airplay, you might get away with it - I have many times (but then again if I'd sold loads of copies or had tons of airplay I wouldn't be doing this website would I!!) The thing is; if you want loads of people to hear it, one of them might sue you.
If you get caught, a few potentially nasty things can happen.
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