Photo courtesy of 3 Sons Productions
March 4th, 2010 – So lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about sampling. Legally it’s pretty straightforward, if you take a piece of someone else’s recording then you have to secure rights to do that. Whether or not you agree with the way the legal system is set up, is not what I want to discuss here.
I’ve discussed my take on sampling before and while my feelings on the subject have evolved slightly, I still largely feel the same. To make sure everyone’s up to speed on copyrights, I’ll go over them in one sentence (it’s definitely not that simple but it’ll do for what I’m trying to explain). There are two basic copyrights when we’re talking about music, the copyright to the composition itself, and the copyright to the actual recording.
What’s gotten people into trouble historically, is the copyright of the recording. Producers are taking chunks of a recording that’s copyrighted and using it in their own compositions. I’m not knocking it, I do it too, but not for stuff that I’m releasing, and if I do plan on releasing it, I use royalty free loop libraries.
However, what would happen if a producer found a sample he liked, recorded a new version from scratch, then sliced it up. I’m not talking about sampling a recognizable instrumental or vocal loop for the purposes of evoking that original song, but slicing up a sample into building block-sized pieces and reconstructing it into something completely different.
For example, say there’s a really nice funk horn loop that a producer slices out of a track. He slices it up and starts playing it out in his MPC and realizes that he could have a really great track. So to get around the master recording copyright, he calls in some of his friends who play horns and records them playing the exact same part. Now he can take their performance and chop it up just like the original sample, but without incurring the wrath of record label lawyers.
Would he also skirt the songwriting copyright? So imagine that horn sample he aped was the main melody of that song and therefore a recognizable part of the song’s copyright. However, since he’s basically sliced up the horns beyond recognition (and used his own freshly recorded version), he’s not using that melody anymore, he’s made his own. At what level, however does it become a completely new composition and not part of the original song? I don’t know the answer to that, and perhaps any of the more law enlightened out there might help with some answers here.
Some producers use samples to evoke the same feeling of the original, but remixed. Others use samples to set off inspiration and as source material to work with. The former will clearly run foul of the copyrights, but will the latter be free of problems if using re-recording the source material? I’m not sure, but it’s something I thought of, and I believe that the law will allow that.
What do you think? Can anyone with a better knowledge of copyright law than I jump in here?