Microphone and Computer

Copyright material in sound recordings

I’ve been asked this many times in the past but today I was reading a forum where an aspiring sound designer asked the same question. The question was “I was recording the sound of a train station today and recorded an announcement within the ambience. Is it okay to use?” This is a hugely important subject and one I hear on a daily basis being ignored. Some people are just not aware, while others seem to just release sound effects in libraries that blatantly contain such recordings. So, why is this an issue?

Here is the scenario: you’re recording the ambience of an airport terminal. All good, but then an announcement over the PA says “Flight XYZ to Amsterdam is now boarding, please go to gate 45”. Now this might not seem an issue, and it might not be. But it also might. If that announcement was a recording, then it’s copyright material. The airport probably own the copyright and you just can’t use it.

Now, lets say it was a person saying that info live into a microphone over the PA, then that’s okay. BUT, if that announcement contains the name of the airline, then that’s a trademark and you can’t (without permission) use it. This second example may never be a problem. I mean, is the airline likely to come after you? Well probably not, unless… say that sound effect is used in an advert for a political party with some pretty radical views. That airline might suddenly take offence and it may just come back to you. This may be an extreme example, but why take the risk as the library/sound recordist? Also why pass that risk on to your customer?

There are lots of other examples of when copyright material can be recorded into your sounds, either by accident or on purpose. I hear on a regular basis sound effects like ‘cell phone ringing’, ‘toy speaking’, etc. That ringtone you just recorded… guess what? It’s a recording created by someone else and it’s under copyright. You can’t record it. That speaking toy… same thing. Someone else has created that toy speaking sound and they own the copyright.

Sat Navs…. I recently recorded a few phrases for a client that would appear in a scene where a car is driving and the sat nav pipes in with directions. The client was aware that the sat nav voices are all material owned by someone else and couldn’t be used. Great for me as I got a job out of it.

Another common problem can be noises that bleed into recordings that sometimes you don’t even realise are there until the edit. I recently was recording traffic sat still at a red light. One of those cars happened to be a Ferrari and it made an amazing throaty sound. Then it pulled away and I thought I’d captured a beautiful one off sound effect. Until in the edit, I noticed music playing in a car close by and while it wasn’t clear, it was possible to make out the song. That one thing made that sound unusable. I was gutted.

It’s a problem that all sound designers and field recordists will come across. Some ignore it, others don’t. Personally I wouldn’t take the risk.

Getting round the problem

So how can you create the perfect airport terminal with announcements to make them more real? The solution is to record them yourself. For example, you can record the crowd at the airport, then record yourself or a friend saying the PA phrase (with fake airline name) and add it in. You’ll need to use EQ and reverb to make it fit the space but if you get it right, no one will know. I once had a customer ask me about one of my ambiences and the announcement in it… I told him it was okay as I added it and he complimented me on how well it fit in. If you want incidental music in a scene, record it yourself and add it in. Yes it take more time, but if you want to be able to release that sound, you have to do it.

So next time you’re recording sound effects, be aware of music, recordings in machines, announcements, cell phones ringing in the background etc. It’s a skill that you develop over time and one that certainly can save you a lot of hassle.

By Alan