How do artists manage samples legally

The legal background of cover versions

by Dr. Richard Brunner,

Everyone has probably heard of the terms cover version, sample or remix. What they mean and what legal background is associated with them should be clarified in this workshop.

Cover version - hits warmed up

A scientific study has found that around every fifth song in the charts is a so-called cover version. In the strict sense, a cover version is a new recording of an already published composition, usually by a different artist.

The reasons for this can be varied. Perhaps the original recording is out of print, so no longer available from specialist retailers. Or the old composition is to be presented in new splendor by means of new studio technology to an audience that may not have been in the world when the work was first published. Of course, purely financial reasons can also play a role in cover versions. For example, when the record company comes up with the obvious idea of ​​combining an old song - which has already proven to be a hit in the past - with a currently hip artist in order to place a potential mega-hit with relatively little risk.


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If the original is only re-enacted, this is a cover version in the narrow sense of the word. This cover version is also the least problematic from a legal point of view, because it is then very clear that the originators of the song are and will remain the original composers and lyricists. German copyright law states that already published compositions, the rights of which are exercised by a collecting society for the author, can be replayed or re-recorded by anyone without special permission, as long as the author is appropriately involved in the use of his work - i.e. the cover version.

Practically all commercially used works are administered by collecting societies. In Germany this is GEMA, which is the abbreviation for "Society for musical performance and mechanical reproduction rights". It follows that In the case of real cover versions, the composers of the original do not have to be asked for permissionif the publication of the cover version on phonograms or the performance of the work at concerts is reported to GEMA and the remuneration required by it is paid by the record company or the concert organizer.

If the newly recorded title actually hits the audience, only the original authors earn from the license fees collected by GEMA. The performer retains his share of the record company's income or the concert fee. For example, Marc Terenzi tried in the past on an acoustic guitar cover version of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean", who would be happy about a little pocket money without having to do anything.

Cover version - but with cream, please

In most cases, however, the interpreter is not satisfied with reproducing the composition more or less true to the original. Rather, he would like to impress his own individual style on the song and adapt it to the sound of today. Perhaps the original is just the starting point for the composer's own contribution. Then a somewhat dusty hit gets a fresh icing on the cake with this cover version, so to speak.

To achieve this, the beat and the instrumentation are changed, additional voices are written or melodies are modified. An example of this type of cover version is the one mentioned at the beginning All summer long. This cover version is audibly based on the song Sweet Home Alabama, but musically something different happens. The text of this cover version is also new, although it expressly refers to the original with “[…] singing sweet home Alabama all summer long”.

From a legal point of view, something like this is called an “adaptation” of a pre-existing work. The original authors also kept their copyrights on the cover version of Kid Rock, but the shares are decreasing as the composers of the new version also want to get their share of the pie. It is clear that such a thing can never be done without the consent of the originator. After all, such an arrangement could also go in the pants and the original composers see their personal rights violated. But even if it doesn't turn out that bad no author has to tolerate a change in his musical work, i.e. a cover version.

In practice, the artist's record company asks the music publisher, which represents the interests of the original authors, to approve the release of the new version. If the new version is found to be acceptable after a listening test, it's actually all about money, i.e. who gets how much of the copyright royalties. Since the right holders of the new edition are forced to rely on the consent of those entitled to the original, the latter can demand practically anything. It often happens that copyright independent edits of a work are treated legally and economically like real cover versions, so the editors get nothing.

Sample - in the brevity lies the flavor

The situation with so-called sampling is different from a cover version. In this case, a pre-existing composition is not primarily used, but the sample is an excerpt from an already existing sound recording. This can be a single drum beat or a short sequence from a song, which is then put into a new musical context.

The rights to samples must always be clarified, i.e. permission to do so must be obtained (“sample clearing”). The contact person for a sample is the record company of the original recording. When using sequences, this is also the case with the music publisher (s) involved. In the latter case, the composition on which the recording is based is usually also affected.

The case law has not yet finally clarified whether these strict requirements also apply to the smallest sound snippets. But it is definitely wrong that there is - as is often claimed - a rule according to which a certain number of bars can be used freely. The Hamburg Higher Regional Court decided in 2006 that two bars of a drum loop should be made from the piece Metal on metal of the electronics group Kraftwerk may not be sampled without their permission.

With a sample, it is therefore strongly recommended that you create and record the sounds yourself or purchase commercial sampling CDs for which the rights have usually been cleared.

Remix - mix it, baby!

The remix is ​​regularly commissioned by the performers of a song or their record company. The remixer then receives one or more tracks of the original recording, which he can sample and muddle to his heart's content. A cuddly rock song can be turned into a dance floor hit or a R’n’B hit can be turned into a Drum’n’Bass track. Since the remix comes from the record company that owns the rights to the recording, sample clearing is not a problem here. As far as the composers are concerned, the record company has to get their approval (usually through the music publisher involved).

The remixer usually receives a one-off payment for the remix job, regardless of whether he is editing the original or (exceptionally) just covering it. The copyrights then remain exclusively with the original authors, which of course makes it easier for them to agree to the remix.

Cover version, sample, remix - or Madonna vs. ABBA

Whether a song is covered, edited, sampled or remixed is usually very difficult to differentiate in individual cases. Often it is even a combination of several elements such as a cover version and a remix. Maybe you remember the song Hung Up from Madonna. This is based on a sample and at the same time the composition Gimme Gimme Gimme the pop group ABBA, which was heavily edited by Madonna and her producer. Of course there are numerous remixes of the track.

It's similar with Eric Prydz and his one-hit wonder Call On Me, which are distinctive parts of the classic Valerie by Steve Winwood contains. Since Steve Winwood liked the new version quite well, he even took part in this new edition and sang the vocals again. So whether it is a cover version, an adaptation of the original or a remix is ​​hard to say.

As long as you only play music in private, you may not care about these subtleties between a cover version, a sample and a remix. But caution is advised if you go public with it. At the latest when you post music examples on the Internet, you can run into serious problems if the rights to the cover version, the remix or the sample are not cleared. If you enjoyed the topic and are looking for other cases of cover versions or If you want to make the samples used, the website www.coverinfo.de is recommended, which has a searchable database with countless examples.

The following graphic shows years of legal dispute over a succinct rhythmic sequence from the Kraftwerk song "Metal on Metal", which Moses Pelham used in 1997 for a title sung by Sabrina Setlur.