Reading time: 5 minutes

The digital age, where everything is just a click away, has heralded new challenges for artists to protect their work. Just because you can find a song on the internet, does not mean it is ‘free for the taking’. If you want to sample another artist’s songs, there are certain rules and licenses, which this article will explore.

What is Music Sampling?

Music sampling involves using a portion or element of another artist’s musical works. This could be part of the lyrics, the music, the rhythm, or even just a recognisable riff or beat. If you want to sample another artist’s song, you typically need to request a license by contacting the relevant copyright owner.

The Copyright Owner

Whoever you think the artist is may not be the relevant copyright owner. A music recording usually contains three copyrights:

  1. The composer or the music publisher usually owns the copyright in the musical work;
  2. The lyricist or composer owns the copyright in the lyrics (if any); and
  3. The record company, or whoever paid for the song to be recorded and released, owns the copyright in the sound recording.

Distinguishing between the copyright in the musical work, lyrics and various recordings of the song is important. For example, there is only one owner of the copyrights in the music and lyrics of  ‘Hallelujah’. But so many covers have been since recorded that many people won’t even know that the original copyright owner of the lyrics and music is Leonard Cohen. Each recording will have a different copyright owner so it is important to identify the true copyright owner of the relevant version before obtaining permission.

Copyright involves a bundle of rights, exclusive to the copyright owner, including the right to make reproductions of, perform and adapt all, or a substantial part, of the musical work. This means that if you sample a recording without permission, you will have infringed the owner’s copyright in the three types of copyright referred to above.

How exposed you are if you ignore this will depend to some extent on how successful your work becomes. There is an old music industry saying “first the hit, then the writ”.

Securing a Licence

Sometimes, Australian Performing Rights Association and Australasian Mechanical Copyright Owners Society (APRA-AMCOS) or Australian Record Industry Association (ARIA) may be able to supply a licence, or they can point you in the right direction to obtain it directly from the relevant rights holders. These organisations have been set up to administer some blanket licences on behalf of their members. Licences negotiated directly with the rights holders will be on the terms negotiated at the time.

A Licence is Not Ownership

When a copyright owner grants a licence, he or she is permitting another person to use their work, but they still retain ownership and all the rights that come with it. Generally, a non-exclusive licence is granted, which means that the owner may grant rights to others to use the same sample. You may seek an exclusive licence, but this is very difficult to obtain and rarely given.

What if the Sample is a Small Portion of the Song?

To infringe copyright, the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) specifies that the use must be a reproduction of a ‘substantial’ portion of the work. There are no simple ground rules for defining what is considered a substantial part. It is clear however that it is quality, not quantity, that is important in deciding what is substantial. For example, in the famous case of Larrikin Music Publishing Pty Ltd v EMI Songs Australia Pty Ltd [2010] FCA 29, EMI’s recording of the song ‘Down Under’ was found to have infringed the copyright in the musical work ‘Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree’. The Federal Court ruled that using two bars of the original song’s melody in a distinctive riff as part of the ‘Down Under’ recording was enough to constitute a reproduction of a substantial portion of the original work.

It may be that by sampling less than a substantial part of the artist’s song, you are not infringing copyright. But when in doubt, contact the owner to request permission, as if the part is worth sampling, it is likely to be considered a substantial part.

Is Anything for Free?

You may be happy to learn that copyright doesn’t protect all songs. Some artists will have granted a Creative Commons licence, which is essentially an open licensing system, meaning you can reproduce the work for free, provided you comply with the terms of the licence. Check out websites like Soundcloud, which has a search parameter dedicated to songs and recordings with Creative Commons licenses, and ensure you comply with the licence’s terms. For example, often the material can only be used for commercial purposes if the original owner is correctly attributed. For more information, see

Key Takeaways

  • Know what you want – identify the part or element of the song you wish to sample before contacting the relevant copyright owner/s.
  • Ask first – before sampling someone else’s song, obtain their permission or obtain a licence from them to do so and get them to confirm they own the rights they are licencing to you.
  • Don’t need a licence? – if you only wish to sample an insubstantial portion of a song, you may think that you don’t need a licence. But if it’s worth sampling in the first place – then you probably do.


Unsure whether you may be infringing copyright? Get in touch with our IP lawyers today to assist you with all your queries and concerns. Call us on 1300 544 755.


Redundancies and Restructuring: Understanding Your Employer Obligations

Thursday 7 July | 11:00 - 11:45am

If you plan on making a role redundant, it is crucial that you understand your employer obligations. Our free webinar will explain.
Register Now

How to Sponsor Foreign Workers For Your Tech Business

Wednesday 13 July | 11:00 - 11:45am

Need web3 talent for your tech business? Consider sponsoring workers from overseas. Join our free webinar to learn more.
Register Now

Advertising 101: Social Media, Influencers and the Law

Thursday 21 July | 11:00 - 11:45am

Learn how to promote your business on social media without breaking the law. Register for our free webinar today.
Register Now

Structuring for Certainty in Uncertain Times

Tuesday 26 July | 12:00 - 12:45pm

Learn how to structure to weather storm and ensure you can take advantage of the “green shoots” opportunities arising on the other side of a recession.
Register Now

Playing for the Prize: How to Run Trade Promotions

Thursday 28 July | 11:00 - 11:45am

Running a promotion with a prize? Your business has specific trade promotion obligations. Join our free webinar to learn more.
Register Now

Web3 Essentials: Understanding SAFT Agreements

Tuesday 2 August | 11:00 - 11:45am

Learn how SAFT Agreements can help your Web3 business when raising capital. Register today for our free webinar.
Register Now

Understanding Your Annual Franchise Update Obligations

Wednesday 3 August | 11:00 - 11:45am

Franchisors must meet annual reporting obligations each October. Understand your legal requirements by registering for our free webinar today.
Register Now

Legal Essentials for Product Manufacturers

Thursday 11 August | 11:00 - 11:45am

As a product manufacturer, do you know your legal obligations if there is a product recall? Join our free webinar to learn more.
Register Now

About LegalVision: LegalVision is a commercial law firm that provides businesses with affordable and ongoing legal assistance through our industry-first membership.

By becoming a member, you'll have an experienced legal team ready to answer your questions, draft and review your contracts, and resolve your disputes. All the legal assistance your business needs, for a low monthly fee.

Learn more about our membership

Alexandra Shaw
Need Legal Help? Submit an Enquiry

If you would like to get in touch with our team and learn more about how our membership can help your business, fill out the form below.

Our Awards

  • 2020 Innovation Award 2020 Excellence in Technology & Innovation Finalist – Australasian Law Awards
  • 2020 Employer of Choice Award 2020 Employer of Choice Winner – Australasian Lawyer
  • 2020 Financial Times Award 2021 Fastest Growing Law Firm - Financial Times APAC 500
  • 2020 AFR Fast 100 List - Australian Financial Review
  • 2021 Law Firm of the Year Award 2021 Law Firm of the Year - Australasian Law Awards
  • 2022 Law Firm of the Year Winner 2022 Law Firm of the Year - Australasian Law Awards