Copyright Laws: The Currency of Music You Probably Didn’t Know About

Have you ever wondered about how DJ’s can play other musicians songs or how much of a song can be sampled before copyright infringement? Well wonder no more because I looked it up.


I don’t know if I’m just strange or if it’s something everyone wonders this whilst grooving to Eminem’s “Slim Shady” and drinking whatever cheap drink is being offered, but I often find myself wondering how the DJ playing these songs is allowed to play songs by so many other artists when they are getting paid and I got in for free. Is it a crack that many clubs have managed to slip through or is their some legal action that takes place behind the scenes? This led me to think about how songs with sampled pieces can get away with copyright infringement, is there only a set amount of the material you can use and do you have to contact the musician personally? Onto the web I jumped and here’s what I gathered.

Your local club’s ‘student night’ that has free entry and plays 00’s songs until midnight aren’t breaching the law. The RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) handles this issue by having a flat fee that public places pay and this money gets put in a pool that then is delivered equally to the artists that are apart of the RIAA. This saves a lot of time and hassle, and actually seems like the most logical thing to do and I feel a little silly after finding that out.

As far as sampling goes, this is a little more technical. Firstly let’s look at what ‘Fair Use Law’ is and if you’re following its guidelines: in a nutshell it’s basically just if your music is non-profit and/or educational. It really depends on what the court says though, if the original piece of music is going to be damaged by the new piece due to money sales or public attention then it can become a copyright issue. There is also not a specified amount of music that can be sampled and that is also based upon the courts decision. If your sampled piece of music doesn’t fit the guidelines for ‘fair use’ then you have to contact the publishing company as they are normally the people that own the rights to the song, and the fee that will be paid depends on the artist, the amount of song used or it may just be a flat fee.

 So with all those laws in your head, let’s look at some big artists that went under fire for copying other artists tunes. A pretty famous one would be the court case that followed Vanilla Ice and his hit song “Ice Ice Baby”. When this track was released a lot people noticed the similarity to “Under Pressure” by David Bowie & Queen. At first Vanilla Ice laughed it off saying that it was slightly different but ended up paying £2.8m in royalties and now all the members of Queen and David Bowie are given credit for the song. Another pretty famous (and recent) case is the one between bands Led Zeppelin and Californian psychedelic band Spirit. “Stairway To Heaven” may be Led Zeppelin’s most famous track but he went to court last year after it was alleged that the intro was taken from Spirit’s song “Taurus”; however, Led Zeppelin won this case due to the guitarist from Spirit being unable to prove it was plagiarised. Everyone knows the theme song to cult-classic show Ghostbusters, but even this track couldn’t escape the scrutiny of copyright violation. When the movie was being made, producers approached Huey Lewis and The News, however they were already writing for Back To The Future so they turned to Ray Parker Jnr. and asked him to create a track that was reminiscent of Huey Lewis. A court case arose after it was believed to have come from track, “I Want a New Drug”. The lawsuit was settled in 1995 on the grounds that both parties refrain from talking about it to the public but Huey Lewis was soon sued by the other party in 2001 after breaking the agreement.

The moral of the story is: don’t sample other artists music (unless you’re 100% sure that you won’t get into trouble) and end up a house contractor like Vanilla Ice.

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