Who and what do I ask for the rights to use a sample?

August 30, 2011

Dear Music Lawyer,

I'm an electronic artist, and I want to start remixing some songs. Who do I ask for the rights to use a vocal track in my songs and what information should I provide? Is it likely that I can get the rights without being signed to a label?


Dear Jeff,

If you want to incorporate all or part of an existing track into your own track (i.e., sample), then you will need to request permission from the owner of the sound recording of the existing track and the owner of the underlying musical composition embodied in that sound recording.

The owner of the sound recording copyright for popular music is often a label. The owner of the copyright in the underlying musical composition is often the songwriter or artist unless they assigned their publishing to someone else. If the track is from an independent artist, the artist may own the recording as well as the underlying song. (TIP: You can usually find the owner information on the back of a CD by looking for the © for the owner of the composition and the ℗ for the owner of the sound recording.)

Once you find out who owns the copyrights, then you would need to request a license from (1) the sound recording owner and (2) the publisher of the musical composition. License requests are generally sent in writing. It would be worth a call to the label or publisher in advance to ask to what person or department license requests should be sent, especially if it's a bigger company. I often advise people to send the request by fax and mail to double the chances of someone reading it. (TIP: If you are lucky enough to get to talk to a licensing person at the company, then you can ask exactly what they need you to include in your license request or you may even be able to get the ball rolling over the phone.)

In your license request, you would need to do the following, at a minimum:

  • identify yourself and provide your contact information
  • specify exactly what you want to use (e.g., the vocal clip from :57 through 1:14 of the track entitled "________")
  • describe how you want to use the recording/song in your track (e.g., remix/edit vocal track with new underlying electronic music)
  • describe how you want to exploit your new track and for how long

How you want to exploit your track should include your anticipated methods of distribution such as releasing physical or digital products, including in soundtrack of music videos or films, etc.

The broadest license request would be for "all media worldwide in perpetuity." (TIP: "In perpetuity" is frequently used in music contracts and means forever. Always be wary of this term if you're the one doing the licensing!)

Keep in mind that most licensors (i.e., the owners of the copyrights) will require you to sign a license agreement (usually generated by them) and pay a license fee (usually set by them) prior to granting you the right to use their copyrighted works. You would be wise to have a music attorney review any such license to make sure it actually grants the rights that you were seeking. In general, the broader the rights you seek, the more expensive the license. Some "promotional use only" licenses may be granted for free depending on the publisher/label/artist.

Also, copyright owners of sound recordings are not required to grant you a license at all. In this context, the owners of the musical composition are also not required to grant you a license since you would be incorporating their work into another work rather than doing a simple "cover" version of their song that could be cleared under a compulsory mechanical license. More information on compulsory mechanical licenses is available in my May 17, 2011 post.

As far as your question about your likelihood of obtaining the rights without being signed to a label, it's difficult to say. Every licensor will have different reasons for accepting/rejecting license requests. However, it is probably true that more well-known artists/producers will have an easier time obtaining licenses for samples than relatively unknown artists and producers. It's the common access problem that many experience in the industry.

Best of luck!

—Amy E. Mitchell

AskaMusicLawyer.com is maintained by experienced Austin music lawyer Amy E. Mitchell. Please feel free to ask any music law related questions. You will be notified by email when your question has been selected for response, and the response will be posted on this site.

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