The last article here started a series on sound effects library copyright questions. That post gave an overview of how copyright works with indie sound fx libraries and the pros that use them.
Of course, sound effects can be used in hundreds of ways. Do these rules apply to sounds used in theatre? What about a non-profit project? Every situation is different, and this naturally creates confusion.
I’ve received so many questions about copyright on Airborne Sound that I thought it would be helpful to share questions and answers from people who visit there.
So, today’s article is designed to help you understand how to use sound effects in your projects, and protect you from copyright issues.
There are four questions today:
- Can I use video game sounds in my project?
- Can I use sounds a friend purchased in my project?
- Can I download and re-edit a sound, then sell it?
- Other sound fx copyright questions and answers.
Can I Use Video Game Sounds in My Project?
Not every sound effect is downloaded from an indie sound library. Sometimes clips wander into projects from television shows, DVDs, songs, and so on.
Here’s a writer that wonders if sounds from a video game can be used in an indie film.
I have made a low-budget film. I’ve just found out that my sound designer used gun sounds from a video game, as well as a few other sound effects online that were not explicitly cleared.
If these sounds are used sparingly and combined with other sound effects/filters/music, is it all right to use them in the film?
Finally, do these issues still apply if I am not making any money from the film right now? (In other words, if I am only using it for film festivals and not for theatrical release.)
This email has a number of questions. Let’s break them down:
- Can I use sound clips from other creative works in my film?
- Is it okay to use sound effects from other projects if I only use them once or twice?
- Is it fine to use clips from other creations if I combine and disguise them with other media?
- Will it be okay to use sound fx from other creative works if my final project is private?
- Am I allowed to use other people’s sounds if my project is non-commercial?
This is a common situation. Why? Well, often the scope of using sound effects is unclear. There are many free sound fx websites. It’s common to perform a simple Google search and just download images and text. So, it’s not surprising that people unfamiliar with sound clips end up using or sharing them without knowing finer details. The result? People mistakenly believe they can download and use any sound effect freely. Can you do this?
In the case described above, using those effects would certainly be problematic. Why?
By the letter of the law, the gunshots were created by someone else (in this example, a video game publisher). Whether the game or video is free of charge or for commercial sale, the sounds are the intellectual property of the owner, and cannot be used without their permission. (This may be the case for the other sound effects sourced online mentioned by the poster, but it is hard to say without knowing their source.)
The poster also asks about frequency (e.g., used once in a film, or many times). Unfortunately, the frequency of use doesn’t matter. Similarly, whether or not they are processed or combined with music doesn’t matter either. Unless the editing crew have been granted an explicit licence to use those sounds, including them in the film is problematic.
And, unfortunately, the distribution scope or commercial status of the film doesn’t matter either. This issue is that the tracks are being used without a licence.
I sympathize. Sound effect licensing can be opaque. Mistakes happen quite easily. What’s a good way to understand it? Sometimes it can be helpful to look at intellectual property using a different medium. In this case, let’s consider the perspective if video were shared under similar circumstances.
For example, a comparable situation would be if a YouTuber had posted a handful of scenes from the filmmaker’s film in a video on their channel. Even if the filmmaker’s scenes had titles over them, or grainy processing, and the YouTuber was not making money from the video, they would be still using the filmmaker’s material without consent. Of course, that’s a bit of a clumsy analogy, but hopefully it sheds some light on the situation.
How can a filmmaker solve this problem? They must purchase a “royalty free” sync licence. A sync license is standard to 99% of sound effects shared online, and is automatically granted upon purchase. In some cases this licence is granted when effects are given away for free, too. A sync licence grants the right to synchronize the sound clips with other media (only).
This filmmaker’s best best would be to swap out those effects for licensed ones so they can be completely confident that a licensing issue doesn’t come back to haunt them some time down the line.
Can I Use Sounds A Friend Purchased In My Project?
This writer asks if they can use sound clips in their project that someone else purchased:
I am a teacher. Some of my students created videos for a competition. My son purchased some sound effects for use in his own videos. He gave me some of the sound effects for my students to use. Now I’m worried that their videos will be disqualified because of copyright infringement.
Is this a problem? If so, what can I do to fix it?
This question is asks about two common sound effects issues:
- Can you use sounds a friend purchased?
- If so, how many people can use them?
So, the question is about transferring sound fx ownership, and about licensing scope.
When someone buys a sound effect, they alone acquire a licence. That grants them permission the use the sounds in their projects. It is not transferrable to anyone else. In addition, the licence only applies to one person. Something called a multi-user licence is required to allow more than one person to use the sound effects. Multi-user licences require special pricing. For example, a 10% fee may be added to the price to allow five extra people to use the sounds. The exact fee depends on the publisher. Anyway, the point is that only one person can use a sound effects collection. A multi-user licence is needed to allow others to use the clips.
So, unfortunately there would be some issues with the project mentioned above. The reason is that the licence to use the sounds is owned by the son, since he paid for them. Because of that, only he would be allowed to use them.
The easiest fix would be to swap out the sound effects for ones the teacher actually owns. Another option would be to buy a multi-user license that would allow all of the teacher’s students to use the sound effects freely.
Can I Download And Re-Edit A Sound, Then Sell It?
Now, a question for sound library publisher:
I am a ring tone creator. I have mainly sold my own sound recordings of public domain songs, but have recently considered using sound effects.
I want to use a sound effect someone else recorded, then alter it with EQ, pitch shifting, time shifting, and combine it with other audio. Will this make the sound a “derivative” that I can legally use? Does pitch shifting constitute making the clip “unrecognizable” and therefore legal for me to use? Or is it better to record my own sound effects?
So, the question is asking three things:
- Can I use someone else’s sound as a building block for my own sound library?
- How much do I have to alter a sound clip to make it my own?
- Can I sell this new sound?
First, about the word “derivatives.” An earlier article on Airborne Sound explored sound effect derivatives. These are creations based on something else. After all, very little occurs in a vacuum.
Anything that sources another creation will be a derivative. As long as the final work is referencing another idea or creation, technically it will indeed be a derivative work.
Derivative works are a bit of a grey area in sound effects copyright. International legal guidelines suggest that the change should be “substantial” and so great that you can’t sense the source recording in the new one (thus the “unrecognizable” aspect). In this case, pitch-shifting, EQ’ing, and time-shifting would not be enough. Why?
The key is the word “substantial.” The change must be dramatic, and create something new entirely. How dramatic? It must be altered so much that the original creative “idea” must no longer be present. That protects the original creator’s idea so that there is no overlap.
So, pitching a cat vocal down a few notes won’t work. The original cat sound will still be present, just altered slightly. Naturally, this makes it challenging to create a cat ring tone from an existing sound library: if you change it so much that it is a new, legal, derivative clip, you likely won’t be able to tell that it is a cat at all!
Will your change be substantial enough? There’s really no way to know until you win in court. It’s a grey area. It hasn’t been precisely defined for all media or territories. A better starting place may be to consult a Web shop’s end user license agreement, and see what they allow.
Most won’t allow this, and have special instructions for ringtones. Others will allow this use, but only if you pay an extra amount, say, $500 per 10,000 downloads of the ringtone. Generally speaking, there’s no set rate. Libraries usually work with the budget of the customer. However, the biggest factor is how wide the distribution of the network is, or how many downloads are predicted/occur. The rarity of the sound effect is also a factor.
In most cases, it’s best to record a new sound. Why? It’s legally bullet-proof, you own the copyright, and, in the end, it may cost you less and take less of your time.
Other Sound FX Copyright Questions and Answers
I’ll also include a few other specific sound effect questions from my Creative Field Recording blog:
- How to Share Your Sound Effects Library Safely: how derivative works affect sound libraries, and how you can protect sound fx collections.
- Can I Sell or Record Copyrighted Sounds? The second answer in this Q & A addresses using someone else’s sound fx in their own collection, and whether you using brand names in your sound library is a good idea.
Sound Effects Copyright and Your Project
The examples above featured a low-budget film destined for festivals, ringtones, and an educational video competition. Of course, you own project may be different. You may be creating an iOS app. Your producer may be asking about the legality of using clips in ad. Do the answers here apply to your project?
The answer in the vast majority of cases? Yes. You can simply swap out the project type with your own and apply the same advice.
Browse a list of guidelines for using sound effects in typical projects.
It’s always good to contact the sound effects publisher, however. You can ask me any licensing questions you have.
Projector photo courtesy of AndreasS, classroom photo courtesy of Emory Maiden, iPhone photo courtesy of Luke Ma.
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