Sometimes an independent artist will want to use sections (samples) of music by other artists in their work. This may result in copyright infringement problems if the artist does not get sample clearance, which is the term for formal permission from the copyright owner. However, an artist does not always need sample clearance. The copyright may have expired, causing the work to enter the public domain. Read more here about when you may or may not need sample clearance.
In the event that you need sample clearance for pop music, you must find the copyright owner for the song and the copyright owner for the recording that contains the song. The copyright owner for the song probably will be a music publisher, while the copyright owner for the recording probably will be a record company.
Getting Sample Clearance from a Music Publisher
You can contact performing rights organizations to find out the information for the music publisher. The two most prominent organizations are BMI and ASCAP. Their websites should provide the name of the entity that controls the copyright for a certain song. If you cannot find this information online, you can contact BMI or ASCAP by phone and ask the song indexing department to give you the contact information for the music publisher. You may face resistance to a request for sample clearance. If this happens, you can offer to pay for clearance up-front, which may resolve the publisher’s concerns.
Getting Sample Clearance from a Record Company
Finding the record company can be much more challenging than finding the music publisher. You can ask the publisher for information about the record company, which may be found in the publisher’s records. Alternatively, you can consult record stores to find the record company that currently releases the recording. If these methods do not provide a clear answer, you can retain a clearance expert to help you search for the record company. These professionals will charge an hourly fee while helping you navigate the process. Clearance experts often maintain connections in the industry that allow their clients to save money and effort.
Proceeding Without Sample Clearance
Many copyright owners do not permit sample clearances, or an artist may find that they cannot locate the copyright owners. When this happens, you may want to consider pursuing samples from copyright owners that are easy to find and willing to cooperate with artists seeking clearances. Or you can try to contact the author of the song directly. They may be able to override the refusal of the copyright owner, depending on their control over the song and its clearances.
In other situations, an independent artist might be able to get around a lack of sample clearance by rerecording the section that they wanted to sample. This might make sense if they get clearance from the music publisher but not the record company. You can play the relevant part of the song and rerecord it so that it sounds just like the original song. Copyright protections for record companies extend only to direct copies of the recording. A record company cannot sue you for infringement if you imitate the recording.