How Music Sampling Works

Music Sampling Legal Issues

Early on, hip hop artists could get away with sampling songs without repercussion. The artists generally didn't even seek permission from copyright owners, let alone receive permission. Soon, you could even buy CDs that contained compilations of drum and bass samples, including infamous breaks like the one from "Amen Brother," to create your own remixes. But as the genre grew in popularity and sales, copyright owners began to take notice of artists like Public Enemy, who used sampling heavily.

At first, the costs of a buyout, or the purchase of rights to sample a song, were modest. But these soon grew, and there were also additional fees called rollover rates, which added to the costs depending on how many units were sold. What complicates matters is that artists had to pay two different copyright holders for the same song: the copyright owner of the music (the composition) and the copyright owner of the actual recording. Artists can at least avoid paying the latter by making a new recording of the song. But members of Public Enemy claim that they had to change the group's sound as a result of restrictive copyright rules.

The general consensus is that these artists didn't sample older recordings to maliciously pass someone else's work off as their own, but to create something new with it. But despite harmless intentions and the value of the art they were creating, in the eyes of many, they were nevertheless profiting off of stolen work. For instance, Clyde Stubblefield, the original "Funky Drummer," still hasn't received compensation for his much-sampled drumming.

Now, copyright owners are more likely to clamp down on unauthorized sampling quickly. In 2004, Danger Mouse sent out promotional copies of his work called "The Grey Album," which was a mashup of the music from the Beatles' "The White Album" and Jay-Z's raps from "The Black Album." EMI, the label that owns the Beatles' recordings, quickly slapped Danger Mouse with a cease and desist order, preventing him from releasing the album commercially. (This didn't stop the album from becoming a huge hit over the Internet, however, as the work spread quickly over P2P networks.)

What bothers many supporters of hip hop sampling is that those suing for damages are usually not the original artists themselves, but the corporations that own the copyrights. One notorious case came in 2005, when Bridgeport, a one-man company that had acquired many copyrights, sued Jay-Z for his use of sampling. The Sixth Circuit court ruled in favor of Bridgeport and warned simply: "Get a license or do not sample" [source: Wu].