Copyright – a voice artists guide

Copyright – nothing is ever free – a voice artists guide

I nicked a title for this blog from someone else. Then I realised I shouldn’t.

Working in a creative industry we often need to engage with creatives from other fields and use their work. This makes the dread word copyright raise its head. So what are we allowed to do? And more importantly, what aren’t we allowed to do?


The first thing to say here is that I’m not a copyright lawyer. And even if I were the advice offered here is aimed at the UK – where I live – and other territories laws will differ from what’s below.

What I’m offering below are some wide brushstrokes and general guidelines. If you think I’m wrong please let me know and I’ll look into it and change the blog if necessary.


Before starting to write this blog I made a quick visit to the i-tunes store and bought myself some new music to listen to as I write. Except I didn’t. I don’t own the music. I bought a licence to play the albums in my own home and car for my own entertainment and the entertainment of those who visit my home, sit in my car or are within earshot of my boombox as I strut around the ghettos 1980s style.

Actually, that last one is probably not covered. If I want to play the music in public, use it on a piece of audio production, play it to people on hold or any other ‘public’ use I need further licences.

All music (whether it’s production music or the latest chart-topper) is licenced by 3 different bodies – The MCPS, PRS and PPL – who each look after a different aspect of copyright.

Royalty free music

Royalty free music isn’t royalty free! All it means is that you don’t need to declare its use to MCPS.

The MCPS (the mechanical copyright protection society) historically cover the transference of music from one medium to another. So in the old days when MCPS libraries were on CD and you were loading them into your DAW (or onto tape if you’re really old!) that would need MCPS permission. How much you’d pay would depend on how much the publisher wanted to charge.

All those times when clients want to use ‘Simply The Best’ on their ad campaigns and you explain that they can’t afford it? It’s the MCPS bill you’re talking about.

PRS and PPL have joined forces these days (and they do work closer with MCPS than they ever used to) and they look after the performers rights.

PRS is the Performers’ Rights Society and PPL is Public Performance Licence, and if you want to play the radio in your shop you need a licence from them. If you’re a pub or restaurant with a jukebox, Spotify playlist or if you stage live music you need a licence. If you’re a musician you can register with PRS and collect royalties every time one of your songs is played. If you gig you can also collect royalties every time you play one of your own songs – which is nice! Radio stations have to declare to PRS what songs they’ve played (including the music used on ads and promos) and the copyright holders get paid royalties.

This is how royalty free libraries work. This is especially important for those royalty free libraries that are free to download. They’re making their money from royalties – which is why the licence (there’s that word again) to use them is just for broadcast use. If you want something from one of these libraries for a showreel or website you need to get a different licence to do so from the publisher of the library.

All very confusing. Just remember this guideline. No music is free!

Sound effects

The same basic rule applies to sound effects as well.

When you download or buy SFX you don’t own the audio, and there will be rules regarding what you use it for. I’ve gibbered on for too long about music, so have a look at 3 different licence types on to get a general idea of how this works.

Here’s another guideline. Whether you’re downloading music or SFX, check the licence terms on the audio before you download it.


So you’re putting your new website together and you really want a photograph of a microphone. You just put ‘microphone’ into google and save an image. Right? No. Apart from the fact that you’ll probably end up with a Shure 55SH – which is a bit of a cliché – you’re breaking copyright law.

Think of it like this – if you’d voiced something online somewhere and another person/company grabbed it and used it on their website would you be happy?

For every photo online there is a photographer – a fellow creative – who quite possibly makes a living from people licensing their photos. Or there’s a stock photography site that issues licences to use the photos they control, and some of those (*cough cough* Getty *cough cough*) can be quite keen on catching those who use their photos without permission and getting a bit lawyer-y.

So what do you do?

Firstly, you can take photos yourself and then you can do whatever the hell you want with them!

Secondly, if you’re collating photos for your website you may want to have a photo session with a professional photographer. These wouldn’t all need to be photos of you, if you can assemble a list of photos that you want you may well be able to work with your photographer and put together the still-lifes you want or whatever else it is you’re after.

If that’s not what you want to do then you’ll need to have a look at some stock photography sites. There are many of them around and the prices for photos can very massively, so you’re almost sure to find something you can afford. Again with these the licences do differ regarding what you can do with the photos you download, so make sure you read it all before you purchase.


Imagine this scene. You’re a member of an amateur dramatics group and you want to put on a Shakespeare play. You just buy a book and then photocopy the pages for the rest of the group members right? Nope. 2 reasons why not.

Reason #1 is that with the number of pages you’ll have to photocopy and the number of players/crew who all need a copy it’d probably be cheaper to buy the books, you cheapskate.

Reason #2 is copyright. You’re right in your thinking that literature becomes public domain 70 years after the author’s death in the UK (subject to their estate etc.), but the book is still subject to copyright. Someone has gone to the lengths of laying out the pages, decided on the ‘right’ font to use, the size of lettering, kerning and other posh words that Helen understands more than me, and it’s their work you’re ripping off. Yes, the typesetting is copyrighted (Copyritten? Copyrote? Copyraggan?).

The same goes for newspaper articles, except with those the actual words are protected by copyright as well. So all those times you’ve grabbed a little newspaper article about your children’s class at school doing a sponsored nose-blow and stuck it Facebook you’ve technically been breaking the law.

TIP: To find out more about press use, read the NLA Media Access guide: Press coverage without breaking the law.

There are some companies and organisations that don’t mind the extra publicity, but there are those that do. Finding out which is which by trial and error could be a costly business.


A special section about showreels because there is a bit of a grey area in copyright law (or at least its application) that sort of says that if you’re not making money from your breach you can ‘get away with’ it. So if you decide to use commercially released music, or copy from an ad that has been broadcasted it’s ok. Just be prepared to change things if you do get caught and handed a cease and desist. But not all companies will do that, some will go straight to their legal department.

There are script libraries around with hundreds of scripts to download, but not all are there for showreels, some are for practice only.

I’d say that the best way to stay safe is to follow the above guidance and not to use anything that you don’t have permission or a licence to use.


Everything you encounter – whether it’s words, audio, pictures, performances or ideas – is someone’s creative output. Treat it all like you’d want people to treat your work and hopefully, you won’t go too far wrong.

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