6 Mistakes You Want to Avoid When Selling Sound Effects – Part 2


In my last post I wrote about three mistakes you can avoid when recording sound effects for publishing.

Here are three more points to keep in mind to ensure things run smoothly. At the end of this post I’ll also include some general ideas about watching for and fixing mistakes.

Mistake #4: Creating sounds using other libraries

Using published creepy dog breath sound effects as part of a designed alien vocal? You will be fine if you’re using it in synchronization with a film or game. Planning on selling the resulting alien snarl composition?

Using someone else’s copyrighted material as part of something you are planning to sell is risky. Just ask The Verve. The Verve now hands over 100% royalties for using a Stones sample in Bitter Sweet Symphony.

Basing your new work on an existing creation is known as a derivative work. The exact limit of your right to call a derivative work your own is finicky. I’ll be writing more about derivative works in upcoming posts on copyright advice for field recordists. I personally play it safe and avoid all derivative works.

How to avoid it: Create your own sound fx elements.

If you don’t have what you need get out there and record. Build your sound design elements from scratch. It’s not easy, but the sound will be all your own. As a bonus it will carry your personal flair.

Mistake #5: Using performances in your field recordings

One library I worked with received notice that one of their mall crowd sound effects contained copyrighted music. I listened to the track. It had merely a faint bass pulse but it was distinctive enough to be a major concern.

Never include performances in sounds that you are planning to sell. Why? The owner of the copyright of the performance could claim that their ‘contribution’ improved your field recording and demand a cut for their input.

As field recordists, we view these things more as intrusions than the actual subject of the recording. Perhaps that airport security sound effect has PA muzak in the background.

Technically speaking, a distant folk guitarist in a pedestrian street ambience field recording could argue that their playing added character and enhanced your recording.

How to avoid it: Capture only original field recordings.

When field recording I absolutely avoid all melodies, ambient music or performances of any kind.

Shut off the recorder and move on if:

  • you are recording something someone has previously created
  • you are recording someone performing
  • you are recording something someone may want compensation from some time in the future

Is it possible that some street performers from Manhattan you recorded on vacation will track you down and demand royalties? It seems unlikely. Avoid it anyway.

Bonus: you’ll also respect their performance as artists and their right to compensation, just like field recordists.

Mistake #6 – Not defining ownership when recording with others

Sometimes you need a handful of recordists to capture elaborate sound effects like guns, cars and ships.

Who owns the rights to the sounds you record? Perhaps you’ll agree to swap a copy of all the sounds recorded. This has its own issues: can everyone then share them however they want, or sell them on websites?

If you were recording for a project during work hours the production or game company likely owns the rights. Maybe the Sound Supervisor does. What if you are working off the clock but want to contribute the sound clips to a project at work?

I once recorded wild cat sound effects with a colleague. The effects were spectacular. We were thrilled. Directly afterwards we both agreed to swap the sounds from our recorders. We agreed we wouldn’t sell anything. Half a year later I heard the sounds on a major publisher’s CD release.

How to avoid it: pay field recordists well for their time.

If you want to sell sound effects you’ll have to pay your helpers for their time. This compensation will offset recordists giving up sound effects.

You will also have to make it clear that you want to own the sounds and sell them. Let everyone know the arrangement you want well in advance of recording.

Speaking as a library owner and publisher, I personally pay recordists I work with to own the rights to anything they record. Some recordists have asked for royalties. This doesn’t work well for a publisher. I’d rather pay them one fair lump sum up front. Why?

For me it’s mostly because of paperwork and freedom of use. Unless a company has a dedicated accounting department it’s unlikely they can afford to keep track of every royalty and permission needed from the recordist every time they want to use the sound. A sound library with dozens of strings attached is a nightmare to manage. Buyouts make things simpler.

If this is the route you want to take make sure the deal you make with your helpers is fair to everyone. If you’re interested in sharing the sounds instead of paying, be clear with your expectations. See mistake #2 from my last post for some ideas for handling this.

Some final thoughts

In the best situations when working with great people these mistakes won’t even occur. However, things can become sensitive when issues of ownership and rights arise. It can also be tricky in an industry where the common perception is that juniors are expected to work for free to ‘pay their dues’.

When recording with the aim to sell sound effects I would suggest these three guiding principles:

  • clearly communicate what you want and need
  • get it all in writing
  • if ownership or copyright is in doubt, don’t use the sound

Overall, stay positive. Expecting that problems will happen doesn’t help. Approaching issues with negativity won’t solve problems either. The goal is to have things run smoothly, and to resolve problems quickly.

Any interesting lessons learned while recording your sound effects? Share your experiences in the comments below.

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