In 1997, after a decade struggling, English quartet The Verve hit worldwide success with a haunting anthem, "Bittersweet Symphony." Built around a five-second loop from the Rolling Stones' "The Last Time"--an eerie symphonic chant of violins--the song became an international hit and served as the musical backdrop for a Nike ad.

But for the band, their success was indeed bittersweet. They had not secured any rights to the Stones' music and, ultimately, one hundred percent of the song's proceeds went to ABKCO Music, the corporation that controls the Stones' back catalog. With a simple licensing agreement and probably a few hundred dollars, the mistake could have been avoided, and the band, ravaged and disillusioned by the whole fiasco, might not have broken up.

Copyright laws were originated to fend off the copying and using of complete songs, and so became slightly dated in the '80s, when the sample started becoming a prominent element of music technology. Now, copyright laws have caught up again. Peter Vaughan Shaver, a local attorney with Northwest Lawyers and Artists, helps local bands with copyright issues. He says the simple guiding principle is: "You can't sample without paying for it."

Sort of like shoplifting, sampling does not become a crime unless you are caught. But more often than not, advise entertainment attorneys, it's easiest to secure a license to use those riffs from the get-go.

As hiphop artists gain more prestige (and better-paid attorneys), this area of law is still being charted. Recently, the Beastie Boys were slammed with a million-dollar lawsuit by jazz flutist James Newton. In "Pass The Mic," the Beastie Boys play a three-note sample from his song, "Choir." Last May, a judge declared the quick riff was not significant enough for Newton to claim ownership worth millions--it would be like stealing a crumb and having to pay for the whole cake.

But Shaver cautions against using this court case as a reason to go on a sampling shopping spree. "This court holding was an aberration and is regarded as poorly decided," he explained.


Northwest Lawyers and Artists can be contacted at 295-2787.