Copyright and Sound – A year with the UOSH project

Copyright is everywhere. Each time you listen to a piece of music, watch a television programme, or open a magazine, you will come across ideas, images and products protected by copyright law. Copyright exists to serve the interests of creators. It ensures their work is not exploited or misappropriated. Yet for most people, it’s the last thing they think of when looking at a painting or listening to a piece of music.

I’ve spent a year with the Unlocking our Sound Heritage (UOSH) project working as a rights officer. I’ve cleared copyright for a variety of sound recordings, including oral histories, educational resources and commercial radio broadcasts. I have come to appreciate how vital copyright is, and how complex and multi-layered copyright in sound recordings can be. Here are some of the most important things I have learnt over the past year. 

Unlocking our Sound Heritage will help save the UK’s sounds and open them up to everyone.

1) Always Do your Research

Copyright holders need to be traced before you can publish any material. For a UK wide sound heritage project like ours, it’s vital to get clearance from rights holders before recordings are put online. There are often multiple rights holders to contact for sound recordings. The three main categories of rights holder are:

– The sound recordist or producer (whoever physically recorded the material)

– The performer(s) – this is anyone who speaks, or otherwise creates a sound on a  recording

– The owners of the embedded rights included in the recording i.e. authors of literary works included in sound recordings or composers/lyricists of pieces of music included in the recording.

In an ideal world, sound recordings come to you with a fully documented provenance, consent forms, and a full list of credits for everyone involved. However, in reality this rarely happens. You need to use all the information you have and be diligent with your research to fill in blanks and identify contributors. I’ve found social media very useful for identifying performers. Never be afraid to approach people via these platforms – they can yield really positive results.


Cassette and photographs from the Samuel Lewis Trust oral history project – Sound recordings often contain multiple rights and require contact with a number of rights holders © Southern Housing Group

2) Log everything

All research must be thoroughly documented to ensure you have met due diligence standards. Set up detailed logs to document your  research and make sure they’re updated regularly. Keep on top of the paperwork from the offset, and you’ll have a clear paper trail proving you have made your best efforts to trace copyright holders.


3) Know when to cut your losses

I decided I would contact people three times before assuming they wished to decline permission if there was no reply. It’s important to have a cut-off point to avoid the feeling that you’re fruitlessly chasing, and to be efficient with your time.


4) Have a friendly and straightforward cover letter

The documentation that accompanies rights clearance is, by its nature, full of legal language and can be off-putting for rights holders. It’s a really good idea to have a cover letter that sets things out in plain and simple terms. This signals to rights holders that you want the process of clearance to be as transparent and easy as possible.


5) Detail is everything

Make sure you have everything listed correctly in your official documentation. You need to ensure all recordings are named correctly and nothing is left off. This saves time and means you don’t have to keep going back to rights holders for additional clearance.


And finally….


6) Prepare to speak to some amazing people

Talking to rights holders has been the highlight of this past year. I have spoken to such a diverse range of people, all with fascinating stories to tell. Playing a small part in reuniting people with memories of times gone by has been an honour. Sometimes relatives are hearing the voices of loved ones for the first time in years, and are thrilled to know these memories will be preserved. It goes to the heart of what makes the UOSH project so special – preserving moments in time for future generations to hear, and allowing voices from the past to be enjoyed well into the future.

Resources from the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA). The UOSH project is working on a number of ILEA recordings, featuring a diverse range of speakers. ©ILEA

You can read more about the Unlocking our Sound Heritage project at London Metropolitan Archives here: