The Moral Dilemma of Digital Sampling


The Moral Dilemma of Sampling

Sampling: recording a note or a portion of music and using it in another song.

Looping: playing that sample over and over again.

Have you noticed that much of the “new” music you listen to lately sounds vaguely familiar? Well, it should. Sampling, from perfect pitches to whole phrases, has been the norm for quite some time. I blame science.


There was a time when art ruled the universe and practicing until you got it right paid off in unique and glorious performances. Not anymore. Musicians who like a well-executed musical phrase, will take it and use it. But not so fast, you might be liable.

In the beginning, music revolved on a turntable, and it was good. Great DJs in the latter part of the most recent millennium would place a couple copies of their favorite record on equally matched turntables, seek a sweet beat, then play it over and over again by switching back and forth between the tables. It was tricky. They mastered the art of play, mute, rewind, cue up, and play it again, right in sync. Thus was born the loop.


Sampling has been around for a long time. And this is where science started to overtake artistry.

An orchestra is a beautiful sound to behold, right? But you’ve got all those mouths to feed. Wouldn’t it be nice to just press a button and have the sound of an orchestra come out? That’s what Harry Chamberlin thought in 1949. Actually, he loved the sound of the organ, so he recorded his favorite organ sounds to tape using a high-quality microphone. He then used a keyboard to play his tape loops. It wasn’t until The Beatles and The Moody Blues used the Mellotron (a British version, which played prerecorded orchestral tape loops) in the mid-1960s that the concept of screwing the orchestra out of their jobs came to international prominence. One should note that both The Beatles and The Moody Blues also used real orchestral instruments and their musicians quite effectively.

Enter the scientist and the Integrated Circuit (IC). The year was 1969, when a commercially available IC chip could “sample and hold” a recorded sound, then play it back on command. From that time on, the writing was on the wall. Load up a keyboard with perfectly recorded sampled sounds of great orchestras, drum beats, riffs, whatever you want, and poof, you’re jamming.

Computers now store libraries full of loops and sampled sounds, which anyone can place on a timeline and create “music” made from sounds that were once made by musicians. The “art” of making music is now riddled with the “science” of computers, apps, samples, loops, and sounds generated by virtual studio technology (VST).

The pros and cons of sampling: A pro studies the greats and learns. A con just steals.

Somewhere along the line, it was pretty easy to figure out that you could just sample a nice groove, add your own words, and create a new song without all the unpleasantness of sweat and the hard work of practicing. Oh, come on! You know what I’m talking about, “Ice, Ice Baby,” and all that. Eventually, the original artists started filing suit against the perps. They won mostly. James Brown’s estate probably makes as much today from his samples being used in other musicians’ songs as he did from the original releases.

At what point does a sample become intellectual property?

The answer is really quite simple. It’s up to a court and a judge to make the determination. If you take a sample, no matter how small, from a previously copyrighted work, you could be liable. There is no such thing as a “three-second rule” in sampling.

If you do purchase a commercially available library of generic loops or sampled sounds, you can use them to create your music, just as you would use the sounds on your digital sampled grand piano, keyboard, or synthesizer. Old school synths, by the way, were not samplers. They synthesized their sounds from waveforms.

If you absolutely just have to snarf up a sample and use it in your next big hit, what do you do? There are a couple of options. Don’t just use it and hope for the best. Sooner or later, if you do have some success, litigators will beat a path to your door, armed with jurisprudence and a host of historic cases in their briefs.

Contact all the copyright owners of the work you want to sample—the record company, the artist, and the publisher. They all have rights. Sometimes a one-lump fee can be negotiated—anything from a small “thanks for asking” fee to six figures. If they think they can ride your wagon to great heights, they may ask for a percentage of profits and songwriting credit. But, be very clear about this: When you use somebody else’s copyrighted work in your musical composition, you just bought yourself a collaborator.

So, you have to ask yourself, are you using samples to elevate your art or are you using samples because it’s easier to steal than create? Making music is really all about the work, isn’t it? And being unique is at the heart of creation. At its fundamental best, music is a collaborative art form. So why not bring some talented musicians into your fold, and work together to create (not recreate) right from the start. Who knows, maybe someday you’ll be the one being sampled.

Todd Hobin is a singer/songwriter, touring musician, and adjunct professor in the Music Department at Le Moyne College. He is a contributing writer for Making Music magazine and International Musician, and lectures on the music industry and the history of rock ‘n’ roll. His Todd Hobin Band has shared the stage with the greatest bands of their time from The Beach Boys and Kinks, to the Allman Brothers and Hall & Oates. Their double CD set, The Early Years is filled with Hobin classics, and their latest album, It’s Not Over, continues in the same tradition. Hobin has also released the Wellness Suite of new age music. His music scores can be heard in film, TV, and audio books, including King Kong, Shannon Hale’s Goose Girl and Fairest, a novel by Gail Carson Levine, which was nominated for an AUDIE Award. Hobin was the musical director and lead songwriter on the acclaimed, nationally syndicated children’s television series Pappyland. He has written and produced for clients as diverse as Coca Cola, Hershey Park, ABC Television, and Tri-Star Pictures. His latest film credits include, Impossible Choice and My Brother and Me. You can contact Todd Hobin at:

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