Fewer and fewer music artists get their start in a recording studio these days. Rather than going out and taking your music to the streets, you take your music to the internet. Teenagers can construct tracks on laptops in their bedrooms and post them online. The next music sensation is just a mouse click away.

When it’s so easy to make music and distribute it yourself, how do you differentiate between sampling other artists’ work and stealing credit? Sampling can help you improve your music, but you still need proper permission before you use someone else’s tracks.

Read on to learn the difference between sampling and stealing, and how you can keep your music original.

What Is Sampling?

Sampling has a long tradition within the music industry. Going all the way back to the 1960s, some artists used tape recorders to create new songs with pieces of other people’s work. Today, sampling still happens all the time with many different artists. Some DJs base their entire careers off creating musical pieces using samples.

How Do You Sample?

To sample, you take a piece of another artist’s work, whether vocal or instrumental, and use it to make a new song. Some songs only borrow a bass line, others use an entire chorus. The sample should only be a small part of the whole new song you create.

What Are Some Famous Examples of Sampling?

Some songs have been sampled many times by multiple artists. For example, the popular 1984 hip hop song “La Di Da Di” by rapper Slick Rick and beatboxer Doug E. Fresh.

Other artists have used parts of “La Di Da Di” in hundreds of different songs and mixes. Most recently, Miley Cyrus borrowed the lyrics “La di da di, we like to party” for her hit song “We Can’t Stop.” Other artists have used “La Di Da Di’s” unique beats, melodies, and vocals for various purposes in their own work.

Other often-sampled songs include “Change the Beat” by Beside and “Funky President” by James Brown. Even the Beatles used brass band samples from a Sousa march for their legendary song “Yellow Submarine.”

What Is Stealing?

Permission and giving credit make the difference between sampling another artist’s music and stealing it. Although you can use samples exclusively to create an entirely new song, the original artist(s) still deserve credit and need to give permission for you to use their work.

Is Using Sampler Software Stealing?

Sampler software gives users access to hundreds or thousands of samples. You can use one computer program to add different instruments, sounds, and melodies to your own creations. Even drum machines use samples to create rhythms.

Most sampler programs are licensed, so you can use them without worrying about royalties or permission.

What Are Some Famous Examples of Stealing?

Even famous musicians have been taken to task for sampling other artists’ work without permission. Not all musicians end up having to go to court or pay penalties, but they still often face public disapproval.

Rapper Vanilla Ice sampled a bass line from Queen and David Bowie’s song “Under Pressure” in his own song “Ice Ice Baby.” The rapper now gives credit to the original artists, but did not originally have permission to use the track.

The band the Verve was taken to court for using samples from an orchestral version of a Rolling Stones song in their own song “Bittersweet Symphony.” They ended up having to pay 100% of their royalties to the Rolling Stones.

How Do You Avoid Stealing?

You can safely sample music without stealing it as long as you have permission to do so. You’ll need to give the original artist credit and let them know you’re using the track before you distribute your music for sale.

While copyright laws protect artists from having their tracks stolen, you can sometimes use samples without permission if they fall under fair use.

What Is Fair Use?

Fair use is an exception to copyright laws. It means you can use another artist’s work without their knowledge if you’re using it for specific purposes. Fair use can be difficult to define. However, most courts assess whether something falls under fair use using four criteria:

  1. Purpose/character of the new material
  2. Nature of the original work
  3. Amount of the original work in the new material
  4. Effect upon the original work’s value

You can usually use copyrighted works without permission if you use them for commentary, parody, reporting, research, education, criticism, or a few other specific reasons. If you ultimately want to sell your music to the general public, you’ll need permission for those samples.

Modern musicians use samples to create unique works of art and pay homage to other artists. When you use samples as part of your own music, make sure you have proper permission before you start distributing your songs.

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