How to Share Your Sound Effects Library Safely


Obama Hope Poster Comparison, courtesy stevesimula

On February 10, 2007, Chicago Senator Barak Obama declared his intention to run for the presidency of the United States. Later that year, street artist Shepard Fairey decided to create art to support Obama’s campaign.

At that time, Fairey was already an established artist. His “André the Giant has a Posse” and “OBEY” stickers and posters were plastered in schoolyards and underpasses worldwide.

The project that brought him the most attention was the Hope poster he created to support Obama. The poster was designed in Fairey’s trademark stencil style with heavy blues, reds, and whites. The poster immediately became immensely popular. It is widely recognized as the most effective political art since “Uncle Sam Wants You.” Since then the poster has been adapted, imitated, and parodied worldwide.

What does this have to do with field recording, and sound effects?

Well, the Hope poster is an excellent example of the challenges that someone sharing creativity faces today. And this includes sharing sound libraries online.

No one seems quite certain what’s involved in sharing sound. Many questions are batted around:

  • Will people pirate my sound effects once they are online?
  • How can I protect my sound library?
  • Can I use a clip from another library to build a new sound for my collection?
  • Is it okay to do this if I process or alter the original clip beyond recognition?
  • Can I use a brand name when I describe sound effects?

I’ll answer those questions today. In this post I will explain how to protect your sound library, and share your collection without risk.

This article is based on my experience sharing sound for the past decade. I’ve seen examples of copyright issues, piracy, and lawsuits. As always, though, if you want iron-clad legal advice for your country, ask a lawyer.

Creating from Other Sources

Obama Hope Poster, Shepard Fairey, used under fair use for educational purposes

What happened to Shepard Fairey?

Well, unfortunately the Hope poster was based on a photograph by Associated Press freelancer Mannie Garcia. The image at the start of this post shows the transformation from the photo to the stencil.

AP sued Fairey. They claimed they held the copyright to the image, and that Fairey used it without permission. Fairey fought back, citing that fair use excepted him from copyright infringement.

It didn’t hold up. Fairey settled with AP out of court.


What this Means for Sound Effects

The Hope poster case shows two vital points that people sharing sound must be aware of:

  • Your sound library must be 100% your creation.
  • You must ensure your sound library is used only how you wish.

What can happen if you don’t nail things down before publishing a sound library?

You run these risks:

  • Someone may take credit for your work.
  • Someone may use your work without your permission, or even sell it.
  • You may unknowingly use someone else’s work, and risk your library with fines or lawsuits.

I know that sounds intimidating. However, whenever I’ve seen these situations crop up, they are rarely malicious. They usually involve accidents, or miscommunication. The truth is it’s very easy for any of these things to happen. How?

Sound is intangible. We can’t compare them like authentic and knock-off Gucci purses. A waveform is the closest way we can compare samples. Also, recordings can be complex. They are built from scores of sound sources around us. What does this mean?

It’s easy for field recordings to accidentally include a distant dance music bass line, or a faint radio or TV show. Sometimes even more deliberate issues happen with simple misunderstandings, such as creating a new sound effect using clips from existing libraries. Often downloaders mistakenly believe they own sound clips they buy. They think they may do whatever they want with the sound, even re-sell it.

These things make sound library infringement easier to do, harder to spot, and difficult to track.

In a way, the Hope poster was a simpler case. If you look at the picture above, it’s easy to spot the similarities between the photo and the poster. It’s not so easy with sound.

How to Use and Share Sound Effects without Risk

How can you avoid all this? The simplest solution considers both sides of a coin equally: building a sound library, and then sharing it.

How to Build a Bullet-Proof Sound Library

  1. Blending other material into your library? Check the library’s user license to see how you are allowed to use another library’s sounds, video, synth patches, or images with your library. Don’t assume you’re in the clear. Verify. This Airborne Sound blog article explains more about using other sound effects in your library.
  2. Better yet: use only sound clips you yourself have created.
  3. Avoid capturing performances or broadcasts when field recording. When you hear radio, beats, or singing, shut off your equipment and record elsewhere. Read more about this copyright hazard on the Airborne blog.
  4. Don’t use trademarks. Unsure if you can use a specific name? Ask yourself if a company would use a competitor’s brand name. Would Apple allow Samsung to describe their smartphones “as slick as an iPhone?” Of course not. Those companies are in the courts about that right now. Brand names, company names, and slogans are trademarked for a reason. Avoid using them.

How to Protect Your Sound Library

  1. Explain how people may use your library. Write an End User Licence Agreement (EULA). This document explains how people can and cannot use your creations. Include it wherever your sounds are hosted, and send it with each download. Learn more in this Airborne Sound article, and this one.
  2. Watermark your previews. “Watermarking” applies a second, periodic sample over of your preview file. You’ll hear a subtle “my sound website dot com” every fifteen seconds or so throughout the preview file. Purchased sounds, though, are delivered without the watermark. Watermarks allow listeners to get a sense of the sound they’ll download, but makes the preview useless to sample pirates. Airborne previews are done this way. I created a small company, to apply batch watermarks to entire libraries of audio files. You can create watermarks easily yourself in any multitrack editing software.
  3. Harden your servers. Ensure your library is tucked away securely within your website’s servers. Ensure your coders have arranged directory and folder permissions correctly.
  4. Trademark your own company and logo.

Why Bother?

Why bother taking these steps? Some mention that it’s unlikely that you’ll get caught if you break these rules. Maybe. However, I’ve witnessed a few dust ups over infringement over the years, so I can say from experience that it does happen.

Others claim that “fair use” allows anyone to blend other people’s work into their own. It’s true that that the formal description of fair use seems to indicate this.

Shepard Fairey claimed copyright infringement didn’t apply to the Hope poster because of fair use. Usually fair use is acceptable if the change to the original is substantial or significant.

Consider this, though: Fairey settled out of court. If a poster that had an overwhelming global impact wasn’t accepted as significant or substantially changed, using an existing sample in your collection won’t cut it either. Don’t risk years of effort building a sound library.

And don’t forget, this concept protects your sound library from being used improperly, too.

A New Perspective

Copyright, and it’s inverse, piracy, are debated often. Discussions devolve into arguments about theft, possession, and morality. Conversations become tense.

Anyway, these issues aren’t really the point, are they? There’s a better way to look at using, protecting, and sharing sound.

Your creativity and expression is unique. No other field recordist will capture sound exactly like you. You are out there in the cold gathering yet another take, or working another prop to call out an inspiring sample. You invoked a concept for your sound library, added a clever name, and a snappy logo. You must do everything you legally can to protect your work, and you should.

We’ve all had our field recordings influenced by movies, or books. And, others will enjoy the video games, plays, or albums we don’t prefer. Whichever we prefer, need all of these creators to continue recording sound, just as others need the library you will share. It’s important to remember this when creating our own libraries and sharing them: thousands are doing the same right now, weaving an interconnected web of inspiration.

Thinking this way ensures you safely tuck away concerns about creating and sharing libraries. Instead, you’ll focus on what’s most important: striking out into the streets and recording more remarkable sound effects.

Read More

There have been interesting discussions about creating sound libraries, sharing them, copyright, and piracy. Here are some articles you may wish to browse to learn more.

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