Can I copyright a sound effect? A sample? Or two notes?

US intellectual property laws (which consist of all copyright, trademark, and patent matters) have evolved into quite an interesting field of study. These laws effect all professionals in audio, ranging from musicians, sound engineers, film audio designers, video gamers, broadcasters, marketing/advertising personal, and even telecommunications specialists.

Can I own the right to use two notes? What about a single sound effect? Could I own the rights to the sound of a dog barking, it its MY dog? How about a cash register ring? The answer is: POSSIBLY.

Who would have though that in the year 2010s, that as prevalent as beeps and buzzes are in our every day life, some train whistles, lion roars, and cash register ‘chings’ could still be exclusively owned by certain individuals and companies.

If you take a look through examples on this list, you’re certain to find many surprises. I did. Some will seem obvious, but other will leave you scratching your head wondering ‘…how on earth is that sound trademarked!?’.


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Doesn’t originality or branding factor into it? How do you find out if something you want to use is copyrighted? I was wondering if the MGM “Lion roar” and the 20th (21st?) Century Fox theme/jingle are copyrighted. I assume they are. If a sound is created, captured, or processed by a human in a creative endeavor then I guess it makes sense. Kind of like a logo or a motto, or tagline.

I found that interesting. I don’t know as much about patent and trademark as I feel I do about copyright. I’ve been reading up on it though, and needing to understand it better because computer code can patented (music compositions can’t be), and sound samples can be trademarked as well as copyrighted. I can say with certainty that trademark always arises from questions of brand confusion.

About the MGM lion roar, my understanding is that its trademarked, but not copyrighted, where as the mario theme song would have both, because its eligible for both. The songs Enter Sandman, and Sweet Child, or Don’t Stop, though associated with a brand, do not inherently define the brand in the same capacity the Mario Bros music or “nationwide is on your side”, or “hoover, nobody does it like you”, functions both as a musical composition and a branding thing. Two of the most basic requirements for copyright is that a composition be ‘fixed’ in a tangible form, and ‘substantially original’. I think you’d have a hard time arguing that for the lion roar.

Sounds like Gene Simmons trying to trademark devil horns. Gotta love ethical capitalism.

I did like this one:

So, if I speed it up or reverse it does it become mine?
The trouble with this stuff is it can be so very time consuming plus I have a huge totally disorganised collection of disparate sounds… sigh…

This week I am re-vamping our coffee ads and trying to record coffee machines in an enticing and salivation-inducing way haha…

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I bet this is able to be trademarked. Seems like something that would play after a cartoon.

You could reverse it and do just about anything you wanted with it. In a US court, the question would be if the sample is recognizable to a ‘reasonable and ordinary person’.

If you sped up that actual sample, and then used it in an advertisement for your coffee business, that probably wouldn’t be good. However, if you kept the note sequence, but resang it yourself, and used it as a part of a song, I’m sure you’d be just fine. Firstly, because the its the sound sample itself that is affiliated with a brand, that is really whats protected. Trademark isn’t meant to keep anyone else from ever singing the word ‘yahoo’. That’s where trademark differs from copyright.

Oh! That’s interesting. I know for a fact you CAN do that. If I record a sound sample of a jet engine, and place it in a video game, Boeing or Cessna DOES NOT own the sound that was generated by their engines. Same way that if my neighbors dog barks, I use that dog bark in a cartoon, they don’t own that either.

But I hate the way trademark law works. Its unpredictable and absurd. Ever watch star wars? Verizon had to pay Lucasfilm royalties on every Android device sold, because Lucasfilm exclusively owns the rights to the word ‘droid’. This needs to get challenged and overturned. Its stupid.

There are many other instances where this did not apply. Take for example, the Sony ‘walkman’ eventually became public domain after the general public just started calling every portable speakerless cassette player (regardless of brand) a walkman. The thing with the ‘droids’ was just greed and pure legal buffoonery.

I wish I could help with this.

An engineer I knew was going to record Harley’s at a street parade, and they came up and informed him that the Harley “sound” is trademarked (or something). They made him stop recording.

Its not trademarked as far as I can tell.

I didn’t look into this much, but it appears whoever it was that tried to make the guy stop recording, had just lied to the engineer guy. They really had no right to do that, especially if it was on a public street, and he was not obstructing the parade. Perhaps the guy who ordered him to stop was simply misinformed. A quick google search here seems to say Harley-Davidson realized they had no real chance at winning this and withdrew the application before it went to court.

I think he said he was on the corner sidewalk with his recording rig.

It would seem so. But 20 Hell’s Angels (or whatever) can be pretty persuasive, no matter what the argument. :muscle:

So the bikers made him stop?? lol…I would have left them alone too.

I don’t remember who it was specifically. I’m just thinking it was one or more Harley “enthusiasts” and he didn’t want to offend. Or get his recording gear broken. :frowning_face:

I think world of sample use and copyright is and always will be a minefield!
Its totally open to interpretation and every claim against copyright is individual.

Wasnt there some sort of 10second rule or something ? I may be wrong.

The way i see it is that if you use someone elses material and try to claim it as your own without gaining permission or at least stating what samples you used then its copyright infringement.

Once you write a song be it on paper or in musical form it becomes yours. Once the idea takes on a physical form that can be reproduced by being read or listened to and repeated or sampled then you own its copyright as an artist by law.

However, arguing and proving it in court is a whole different world! Total minefield and there have been many famous examples.
I myself get more confused the more i read.



I don’t know that there was ever a time requirement, but there is a requirement that it be substantially original.

The individual sound effects that were listed in the previous examples are actually trademarked. Thats different than copyright. Copyright protects the recording and intellectual property, trademark protects the affiliation of the sound with a brand. Like…the “AFLAC!!” duck quack. Or “Frosted flakes…they’re Grrrrrrrreat!”, or the C-C-C-E-C (notes) ringtone from a T-mobile phone. You could sing a song that goes C-C-C-E-C in 8th notes on the chorus of a song, you just can’t associate that sound recording with with a phone.

Dude. Same here! I not only get confused as hell…I get equally annoyed lol.

The sample rule is you can sample 30 seconds max, or 1/5 of the length of the source, whichever is shorter.

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Who made that rule? Is that a legal rule or a ‘taste and respect’ rule? I think a few producers on Pensado’s show have talked about that, and they had their own rule of thumb of like 2 seconds or 5 seconds, I can’t remember. I think it was more of a ‘taste and respect’ rule to the original. I got the sense from them that it’s one thing to ‘borrow’ a short sample to incorporate in your riff or hook, but after a certain point it seems like ripping it off and not being original enough. I’m not judging it, just recalling some things I heard and how I kind of feel about it.

I remember hearing it back in a high school computers class back in the 1990s, I guess it could be totally incorrect. Faith No More has what their label called a “gratuitous” amount of samples on their album Angel Dust, no one would say that wasn’t original. It’s all how ya use it.