Copyright and sampling is always an interesting issue. Certainly when something very old is involved. Take Ludwig von Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. Everyone knows it and thanks to the fact that Ludwig has been very dead for a long time, his works are in the public domain. That means any one can do with it as they please, except re-copyright the exact same song. But here’s the tricky part.

If you rearrange it, you have created something new and therefore a new copyrighted song. This has happened over the years when several artists did their own version. In 1969 the Dutch progressive rock band Ekseption, who were known for redoing countless bits of classical music,  released The 5th. On the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack is Walter Murphy’s A Fifth of Beethoven, released in 1976. There’s even a metal version by At Vance from 2006.

But something odd happened when a lot of artists sampled the Walter Murphy song A Fifth of Beethoven. Technically speaking, they need to obtain a license to use it. So, if art musician Christian Marclay uses only a tiny snip of it in Second Coming in 1997, he needs to pay up. When A+ samples A Fifth of Beethoven in Enjoy Yourself in 1999, yep. House-DJ/producer Paul Oakenfold could’ve used any version of Beethoven’s 5th, but instead opted to use a sample from A Fifth of Beethoven in his track 1975 from 2002 it seems. Robin Thicke also sampled A Fifth of Beethoven in 2002 in When I Get You Alone, but uses a more clearly recognisable part. Even master-remixers 2ManyDJs/Soulwax have taken on A Fifth of Beethoven.

So while the Electric Light Orchestra can cover the original Chuck Berry song Roll over Beethoven (which includes nothing by Beethoven),  they’ll have to get a license to do so, but when they play it live they can include part of Beethoven’s 5th symphony for free and without an extra license from Beethoven.  Oh, and to make things more complicated for you; if you’re a symphony orchestra, you can play Beethoven’s 5th for free, you can’t own a copyright of the song, but you can own a copyright on the recording. So no one can put your recording on a compilation of “Beethoven’s Greatest Hits” without getting a license from you. But of course they can always play their own version and put that on there instead.

Let’s forget about the confusion, here’s ‘my favourite version, the 2ManyDJs remix of the originally copyrighted cover of A Fifth of Beethoven by Walter Murphy:

Like this? Buy me a drink!