Let’s define a few things before we start. What content is considered public domain?  Public domain is defined by law as works that are not restricted by copyright and do not require a license or fee to use. Public domain status allows the user unrestricted access and unlimited creativity. Public domain content includes works with intellectual property rights that have expired or that have been forfeited by the owner. Currently, the default term for copyrighted works is the life of the author plus 70 years. For corporate works, anonymous works, or works for hire, the rights expire 95 years from the date of publication or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever comes first. 

We would also like to add that public domain is not the same as royalty free. Royalty free refers to content that is copyrighted and owned by someone who lets you use it with their permission. There is usually a one time fee associated with the content, but then you are free to use the clip as many times as you’d like. Conversely, rights managed media have specific restrictions and fees attached to the work that are determined by the owner.

Creative Commons (CC) licenses work a bit differently, usually allowing you to use the work for free with some caveats. The most basic CC license is the Attribution license. When using works with this license, you must alway attribute the work to the original creator. Other restrictions are sometimes added, restricting derivative and commercial use of the work, so be sure to understand the license for the work you are using if you go that route.

Sound effects are any sound, other than music or speech, artificially reproduced to create an effect in a dramatic presentation.

What content is considered a sound effect? Sound effects are any sound, other than music or speech, artificially reproduced to create an effect in a dramatic presentation. The function of a sound effect is to simulate reality, create an illusion and set the mood of your scenes. In a barroom scene, a man is hit with a bottle. The bottle is fake, but it becomes real with the addition of an actual glass bottle crash sound from your sound effects library.

Where to Look

With a solid understanding of what public domain is and the differences between the different licensing options, you can plan your soundtrack with confidence. But where do you find the klinks and clanks for your Steampunk adventure? The obvious general answer is the Internet, where you will find websites devoted to producing and distributing public domain, royalty free and creative commons content for use in multimedia productions. 

One such online free sound library is Freesound.org, which provides a great resource for free sound effects. Started way back in 2005, the site was based on the idea of having a website where composers can exchange sounds. Since then, it has grown into a repository of more than 200,000 sounds and a whopping 65 million downloads. Freesound actually operates using Creative Commons licenses, which again is not the same as public domain or royalty free. Registration is free with valid email address and members can upload as well as download custom sounds.

Other sites that offer both royalty free and public domain sound effects include Sweetsoundeffects.com, SoundBible.com, SoundJay.com and Archive.org, though there are others out there as well. Be sure to read the rules for any site you use. While you may be free to use the sounds in your videos, there may be other rules, such as restrictions against posting the sound clips to other websites for download.

Credit Where Credit is Due

No matter what, now that you know where to start, you won’t get that “Cease and Desist” letter from Metallica. Be sure as always to give credit where credit is due. Even if it's Mozart or some person from the 1800s who wrote a jingle now in the public domain, you should give them name credit; after all, someone might be using your stuff in 100 years or so.

Oscar Magaña Jr. was born in and raised in Biggs-Gridley, CA. He lives in Chico and is currently a producer/director for a local TV station, creative services department.  He also owns and operates a full service multimedia business, creating various types of video productions, digital art and print work.

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