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A little bit me, a little bit you: Who owns songs created from app samples?

The way that we make music has changed a great deal over the past five years. In the past, musicians would have to book expensive studio time to record a song and eventually release a record. Now, bands and artists can use apps such as GarageBand, Adobe Audition, or Pro Tools to record tracks and distribute new music.

Many of these apps offer extensive sample libraries, such as guitar riffs, drum tracks, and effects, which musicians can use to create their songs. Used in the right way, samples can make song sound larger, more complex, and more professional. Some artists may use a sample to add a particular dimension to a song that they cannot create with their own instruments. Other artists may forge entire songs out of just material from sample libraries. 

These capabilities raise an important question: Who owns the copyright to a song that uses samples that come pre-packaged with these music apps? Do the copyrights belong to the artist, or do they belong to the company that created the app?

Ownership is often covered by the licensing agreement of the software

Quick question for musicians who use a digital audio workstation ("DAW") like GarageBand or Logic Pro: Have you ever read the licensing agreement covering the software? That multi-page document that looks like a bunch of dense legal text that isn't in plain English and doesn't really make much sense at first pass?

Well, that document is pretty important when it comes to using sample libraries provided by software. For example, the agreement for Logic Pro X (Apple's pro-level DAW) contains a provision that permits software users with valid licenses (provided to users when they purchase the software and included in the purchase price) to incorporate samples into their works on a royalty-free basis.

This means that if you own a validly-licensed copy of Logic Pro X, you can compose and broadcast these songs using content from Logic's sample library without having to pay Apple for using the samples. There are some prohibitions, however. You are not permitted, for example, to repackage the samples and sell them as your own samples to others.

The license granted by Apple for Logic Pro users gives you permission to broadcast or distribute the work that you created that contain the samples. This means that the song may be streamed over the Internet, sold on a CD, or even synched with a movie or performed live without having to pay any royalties to Apple. You may also sell the song (perhaps even on the iTunes platform) to listeners and keep the profits without having to pay for using any content from the sample library.

So, this means everything is fine, right? Not exactly. This is what the agreement says right now. Software makers can change their license agreements at any time and often do so without providing notice to users. For example, Apple reserves the right to make modifications or amend the agreement, so always be sure that you are looking at the most current version of the license agreement to determine the precise restrictions that are in place when you use the platform.

How to protect your intellectual property and rights in your recordings

Because of the ever-changing nature of licensing agreements, your best bet is to speak to an experienced intellectual property attorney before you start selling your song or album. Your attorney will be able to provide you with detailed advice about the steps that you may need to take to ensure that you are able to retain the copyright of your work. 

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