Copyright can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand it protects artists and makes sure they get paid for their work, and on another it can stifle creativity and suck a revenue stream dry. The latter is what happened to The Verve with their still much loved 1998 hit "Bittersweet Symphony."
It's hard to believe that Rolling Stone's Mick Jagger and Keith Richards get all the publishing income from that song, but that's what's happened. The reason why is that "Bittersweet Symphony" is closely based on the Stone's 1965 hit "The Last Time." Hard to believe if you know the song, I know, because I didn't hear it at first either.
"Bittersweet Symphony" is actually based on the Andrew Loog Oldham Orchestra's (the Stone's original producer) version of the "The Last Time" (listen below) rather than the Stone's version. The Verve acknowledged this and actually got a license from Jagger/Richards to use a sample of the song, so they thought they were in the clear.
But when Bittersweet Symphony came out, the Stone's representatives were immediately on the phone saying, "We want 100 percent of the song, or take it out of the stores!" The reason was that The Verve didn't just use a sample, they lifted virtually the entire song and just put new lyrics to it.
This nastiness probably could've been avoided with some shrewd negotiation up front, but that era of the Stones catalog is represented by the notorious Allen Klein, who was one of the hardest and most hated negotiators in the business while he was alive. It seems sure that the exact use of the song wasn't revealed until after the song became a hit, and The Verve thought they were in the clear.
What can you learn from this? If you're going to use a sample, remember that there are 2 licenses that you must get - one from the publisher and another from the record label for the recording. And remember that the length of the sample may become an issue so specify how much of the song you're using in advance.
Below are 2 videos. One of "Bittersweet Symphony," and the second from the version of the song that the music was lifted. You'll be amazed how similar they are.
Don't forget to check out my Music 3.0 blog for tips and tricks on navigating the music business.