Sound Effects Copyright Survival Guide 2: How You Can Use Sound Effects

In the last article we looked at the basics of copyright, including:

  • Why copyright exists.
  • How copyright is applied.
  • Copyright history.
  • Benefits to copyright holders.
  • Duration of copyright.
  • Copyright grey areas such as making copies, duplication and derivative works.
  • How licensing allows others to use creative works.

In this post I’ll write about what copyright means for people that use sound effects. We’ll look at:

  • Sound effects licences.
  • How you can use sound effects.
  • Restrictions on using sound fx.
  • Example projects where sound clips are or are not allowed.
  • Reselling a library you’ve already purchased.

I’ll conclude the series with an article about how copyright and licensing affects sound library publishers.

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The Confusion

Copyright is notoriously complicated. There are thousands of ways to use sound. Perhaps your project is unique. Are you allowed to make backups? Can you use a sound effect download in a toy your company is manufacturing? What about an app you plan to sell in the Android Market?

It’s natural to be confused. Each Web shop has different rules and licences. This post will explain common uses.

If you’re in doubt, it’s best to email a Web shop for clarification.

At the end of this article I’ll explain in plain English how you can use Airborne Sound’s sound effects.

Purchasing Licences, Not Sound Effects

Hundreds of professions use sound effects. You may be a sound editor, radio producer or theatre technician. Perhaps you work for a video game company. Maybe you edit picture for commercials at an ad agency.

Whichever way you cut and use sound, whatever your project, you have one thing in common: you don’t exactly own the sound effects you’re using. This is the source of the largest misunderstanding to using sound effects.

It’s confusing because you actually download a sound file. You can drag it around your computer desktop. It understandable to think you own something that you control. It takes up space on your hard drive, after all.

However, when you purchase a sound effect from a Web shop or CD publisher you are not actually buying the sound. Instead, you are buying a licence. This means you are buying permission to use the sound in specific ways. It does not transfer ownership of the sound to you. The Web shop still owns the sound, and the copyright to it.

The sound is actually incidental, much like a garnish to a larger dinner. The important thing you purchase, the meat of the transaction, is a licence. You’re not actually purchasing a sound effect per se. You are purchasing permission.

Sound Effects Licences

What is this licence?

Expressed in the simplest way, the licence explains what can and cannot be done with the sounds. It outlines how the sound effect can be stored, shared and used.

Some licences may allow you to make many copies. Others allow you only one. Some let you use a clip in films, but not theatre. How can you find what permissions you’re granted when you purchase a licence?

You must read the End User Licence Agreement (EULA). Most Web shops will have the EULA described somewhere on their site. Check the footer of the shop. You’ll commonly see a link to it there.

The EULA is an contract the customer automatically agrees to whenever they download a sound. As mentioned, it describes how sounds can be used. It also explains that you automatically agree to the EULA just by using the website and downloading any sound. This is standard for many websites, such as Amazon, iTunes and so on.

What do these licenses allow or forbid? The good news is that most of them are similar. I’ll list permissions and restrictions that are common with most websites.

How You Can Use Sound Effects

Sound effects typically allow synchronization rights. What are synchronization rights?

The short explanation is that you are allowed to combine the sounds with other media. It can be other sounds or video. This combination, or composition, must be in something called timed-relation. This means the composition must be changing or progressing over time. Think of it in terms of a video or radio spot that moves along a timeline. Other examples include short films, soundtracks for video games, ads and so on.

Synchronization implies that the sound must be combined with something else. This is critical. It means the original sound effect you purchased cannot be separated from the composition. Why is this important?

It means the sound effect cannot be shared. When a sound is blended with the images and dialogue of YouTube video, it cannot be extracted. Library owners don’t want the original copy of a sound to be shared to people who aren’t paying for it. Because of this, almost every sound effects library requires clips to be used mixed in synchronization. This guarantees the sound cannot be removed, and given to someone else without the website receiving payment.

Here are the typical ways sound effects are licenced:

  • Perpetual use. You can use it forever, as many times as you like, without further payment.
  • Storage rights. This means you are given permission to keep a copy of a copyrighted sound effect.
  • A backup copy, but no other copying or sharing (for cash or for free).
  • Use of the sound in any way, but only if it is combined with other sounds or media. This is known a synchronization rights, as mentioned above.

Restrictions On Using Sound Fx

  • Distribution is not allowed. This is the big one. Sound effects websites restrict sharing the sound. Why? Each time you share the sound with someone else you are depriving the copyright holder (the Web shop) of being compensated by another sale. This is true whether you share it for free, or post it for sale on another website.
  • Network use. The library is not permitted to be stored on a network, such as a on a server at work. It is only allowed to be stored on a single computer.
  • Royalty-free only. A sound effect may be labelled as royalty-free. This doesn’t mean it is free, however. It just means you don’t have pay every time you use it (like a radio station does with music). It does not mean that you can freely give the sound away.
  • Project restrictions. This is where the most Web shops differ. Some allow you to use the sound however you like. Others do not allow you to use sounds as ringtones, in video games, toys or industrial products. We’ll look at this more in a moment.
  • Attribution is required. Some Web shops need you to mention the website every time the sound is used. This isn’t as common, and mostly applies to free Web shops.


How do those permissions and restrictions apply to you? It may be difficult to know, even after reading the points above. Every project is different.

I’ve listed example projects below. Most licences allow sound effects to be used in these projects without restriction. They don’t need any further permission from the Web shop.

If your project isn’t listed, it doesn’t mean you are forbidden from using the sound other ways. It just means that you may have to pay additional fees to do so.

Projects Allowed

These are examples of fair use according to most sound library licences:

  • Using the sound effect combined with other audio or video in a television or film soundtrack.
  • Using the sound clip as an on-screen effect when a monster roars, a door opens, etc.
  • Playing a sound when a user selects a menu item on a website. Additionally, the sound must be coded so it cannot be downloaded from the website.
  • In audiobooks, as long as they are merged with dialogue or music. A sound effect cannot be played on its own.
  • In a song, as long as it is blended with other instruments.
  • Using the sound in a radio show. Like audiobooks and songs, it must also be blended with other audio.

No extra fees or licences are required if you use the sound in these ways.

Projects Requiring Additional Licensing

  • Ringtones. Many libraries charge extra to use a sound as a ringtone or ringback tone.
  • Theatre use. Using a sound clip in a play is considered “broadcasting.” The reasoning is that it is not in direct, merged synchronization with any other media.
  • Software, depending on how it is used. This includes iPhone apps. Sounds in software must be coded to be hidden from the user. They must not be allowed to find and separate the sounds from the software. Sounds stored in basic folders that appear on a customer’s hard drive are not allowed. They must be blended with the software’s code.

Why are these examples a problem?

Generally speaking, the issue is that the sound can be separated from the rest of the project. This means it can be copied and shared on its own. In other words, it is being distributed.

Some sound effect libraries specifically forbid these uses. Others will allow it, but will negotiate an extra fee to for permission to do this.

Are You Still Unsure?

What I’ve listed above may not explain your exact situation.

However, if you want a quick answer, ask yourself: Can the sound be separated from the project? If it is removed, will it be the same as the sound I originally bought?

If the answer to these questions are “no,” then you are safe. You can use the sound in your project.

It’s always best to contact a Web shop to make sure, though.

See a list of guidelines for using sound effects in typical projects.

Selling Libraries You’ve Purchased

Let’s say you’re retiring from sound. You’re never going to use the sound libraries you’ve purchased again. Why not sell them?

There are rumours floating around the Web that some library publishers will sue you if you try to sell a sound library.

Are they allowed to do this? Yes and no.

If you sell the sound library you are transferring the licence to the buyer. This means you no longer have the right to store backup copies. It means you’ll have to delete those copies. If you’re attempting to sell the library and keep copies, this is considered distribution. You can indeed be sued for breaching the licence you agreed to when you purchased the library.

What if you just want out? You don’t plan on keeping copies at all. Is this allowed?

Yes. This practice was legally recognized via selling used CDs, DVDs or books. As long as you have obtained the original legally you are certainly entitled to sell your copy. This is known as the first sale doctrine.

So you can indeed sell sound effects you have purchased. You just can’t duplicate, then sell them. This includes posting copies of the sounds on a private website for others to download. Those users are downloading copies, so this too is considered distribution.

Short answer? You can only sell the original library, and only if you remove all other copies from your possession.

Airborne Sound’s Policy

Whenever you purchase a sound from, you are allowed to:

  • Use the sound forever.
  • Use the sound as many times as you like.
  • Store a copy on your computer hard drive.
  • Make a single back up copy.
  • Use the sound in timed synchronization in television, films, commercials, ads, radio, and multimedia.
  • Use the sound in theatre, software (as long as the sound cannot be accessed on their own by users), websites (same as software), toys, and presentations.

These uses require extra licensing. Please contact us for more information.

  • Software where users have direct access to, or can play the sounds on their own.
  • Ringtones or ringbacks.
  • Storing the sounds on networks or via remote access.

See guidelines for using Airborne Sound clips.

Questions? Contact us, we’re happy to explain more.

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