How Long Can a Sample Be Before You Need Copyright Permission?

By Elizabeth Rayne

It is a myth that you can sample a particular length of work, such as four bars or seven seconds of a song, without getting into trouble with copyright protection laws. The law is a bit more complicated. It is best to ask permission from the copyright holder before sampling a piece of music or other copyrighted materials, such as literature, film or artwork. If your use of another's work falls under the category of "fair use," you may be able to use it without permission, but if you're wrong about how much of the original work you're allowed to sample, you could face serious fines in court.

Fair Use Law

Without permission, generally you can only use a sample of another artist's creation if it falls under the "fair use" doctrine. The law does not provide that you may use a specified amount of material, such as a number of paragraphs of text or seconds of music, before you are in violation of copyright law, meaning the copyright holder could sue you for using even a small amount of material. Instead, courts will consider a number of factors, including the purpose of the use, the nature of the work being sampled, how much of the original was used, and the impact on the original work. Use that is noncommercial but instead for nonprofit educational purposes is more likely to be considered fair use. Courts also will consider if the copyright holder is impacted by your use of the sample, such as if the public is less likely to purchase the original album of music because they can access the music through your new composition. Even if your use of another's work falls under the definition of "fair use," you are generally only allowed to use a portion of the work as necessary, such as limiting your quotes from a book as needed for your scholarly paper.

Asking Permission

The U.S. Copyright Office recommends that if you are at all in doubt as to whether your use of copyrighted material is fair use, you should ask permission from the copyright owner to use the material. Again, without permission, you are limited to using only the amount of material that is necessary; you cannot replicate someone else's work substantially without permission. It is not always the creator of the work who owns the copyright -- often music is owned by a publishing company, for example. In addition, if you want to use an actual recording of the song instead of re-recording your own version, you must obtain permission from the copyright holder of the song recording as well, which is often a recording studio or label.

Protect against infringement by registering a copyright. Get Started Now

Paying for a License

If copyright holders allow you to use their work that doesn't fall under the fair use exception, which they are not required to do, they may charge a fee for the license, which allows you to use the sample. The cost for a license is not mandated by the law and can vary significantly based on the artist and your use of the material, such as the length of the sample you want to use. You may be charged a flat fee to use the sample, or you may pay based on how many productions, such as records, you create or sell. You may seek the help of an attorney to track down the copyright holder and negotiate a license agreement.

Copyright Infringement Consequences

If you sample something without permission, it is possible that the copyright holder will bring a lawsuit against you. Courts have not provided specific rules as to when sampling is considered infringement, although samples used in parody, education or research are more likely to be considered fair use. If the copyright holder is successful in his lawsuit against you, you could be ordered to pay any damages that resulted from your unlawful use of the sample, as well as statutory damages up to $150,000, attorney's fees and court fees.

Protect against infringement by registering a copyright. Get Started Now
Examples of Fair Use Copyright Laws in the Classroom


Related articles

Legal Use of the Disney Characters

Walt Disney and the Disney group of companies have created some of the most memorable fictional characters in contemporary culture. Twenty-first century characters such as Nemo the clownfish are as beloved as classic characters such as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. Individuals who wish to use the Disney characters should take care to make legal use of them to avoid infringing Disney's intellectual property rights.

DVD Copyright Rules

United States copyright law is designed to protect the rights of people who create artistic work and those who purchase the right to use such works. DVD copyrights may be registered through the U.S. Copyright Office, but a DVD does not have to be registered to be copyrighted. Copyright protection immediately flows to an item the moment it is created in some tangible form; a DVD is considered a tangible form.

How to Copyright Cross Stitch Designs

Because the point of creating a pattern is normally to allow others to make derivative works from it, you may wonder how, and even if, you can get a copyright. A cross stitch pattern, like other original works, is protected by copyright as soon as it is created, even if it has no copyright notice and is never registered with the U.S. Copyright office. But if someone ever copies your pattern illegally, you must register your copyright before taking the infringer to court. This is something you may want to seriously consider, because someone photocopying your pattern for others to use, could significantly cut into your potential sales.

Related articles

The Right to Sell Copyrighted Material

A copyright is a bundle of rights that includes a legal monopoly on the right to sell a particular work of authorship. ...

Copyright Laws for Using Someone Else's Work

A copyright protects original works in tangible form, such as manuscripts, music recordings or computer code, from ...

Can I Record Someone Else's Song and Change the Words in Parody Law?

United States copyright law grants legal protection to various creative works, including songs or lyrics. Under The ...

What Are the Copyright Laws for Images?

Digital cameras and social networking sites have led to an increase in the volume of images across the media. Anyone ...

Browse by category
Ready to Begin? GET STARTED