Recently, there have been a number of cases involving sound effects companies that are offering “free” sound effects as an enticement for people to sign up for their free accounts. Often times this is in order to harvest email addresses and names for marketing purposes or to sell lists to other marketing companies. The problem is that some of these sites are using copyrighted materials illegally. When companies do this they are not only neglecting their customer’s rights to privacy, but also placing them in potentially precarious legal dangers from the rightful copyright owners.
The issue has often risen from people who are either tired of buying sound effects legally, or who just don’t understand the legal implications and then post blogs on the web, solicit their friends and colleagues, and get people to search their computers for sound effects and then upload them to their newly developed, free sound effects site. Their intentions may be perfectly innocent, giving producers access to a wide variety of sound fx in one centralized location, but the real problem is that most of these uploaded sound effects are copyrighted and subject to the same copyright protections as music, movies and everything else.
There have been cases where people download sounds from these free sites to use in jobs for their paying clientele. Only later to get embarrassing and potentially career ending complaints, letters and law suits from their clients, who in turn have recently been contacted by the copyright owner’s attorney for copyright infringement. Not only can this devastating affair make you and your company look unprofessional, it is highly irresponsible as well. Nobody wants to be reflected poorly in professional circles, and in the highly sensitive environment of copyright law and the legal issues surrounding digital media, companies are coming down harder and people are treading lighter than ever before.
This is why it is important to make sure that the sound effects you are using have been obtained legally and with the appropriate licenses. There are many sites out there that offer sound effects legally. Some of these sites are free, others will charge a nominal fee, and still others may create sounds specifically for you that are licensed only to you. It is true that most of the time if you want a really high quality sound effect you will most likely have to pay for it, but the fee is usually small, ranging anywhere from a few cents to a few dollars, and more often that not it is completely worth it!
If you do want something custom built for you, you will probably pay more for it, but this sound will be licensed only to you and your production and will most likely never be available to the general public, unless releasing it was part of your sound effects/Foley creation agreement or if some one steals it and publishes it illegally.
Your best option is to play it safe. Most of the time the sounds you acquire from legitimate sources will be much higher quality anyway and will thus make your production sound much sweeter!