Making voice-overs is not exactly a 9-5 desk job. For one, it’s a profession that encourages freelancing — that normally entails a lot of verbal, unspoken, or informal agreements. Many voice pros, even those working for agencies or outsourcing platforms, wonder about the essentials of voice over copyright regulations.
And this information is not just for voiceover pros! It’s pertinent for clients to know about intellectual property regulations before commissioning work. Being in-the-know about applicable laws and normative avoids those cumbersome “he said, she said” scenarios.
It’s better, then, for all participants involved to know the gist of things before getting started. Fair’s fair, after all, and nobody should have their feet put to the fire. Clarity always begets a good working environment and even better results.
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This post has been updated in August 2021.
Let’s dive right in!
Intellectual property and copyright
Businessdictionary.com describes intellectual property (IP) thus: “Knowledge, creative ideas, or expressions of the human mind that have commercial value and are protectable under copyright, patent, service mark, trademark, or trade secret laws from imitation, infringement, and dilution.”
Most — if not all — of our creative production can be considered intellectual property. Common examples are:
- Brand names (that’s why you can’t name your food truck “Mc Donald’s” — it’s apparently taken)
- Discoveries (you know, maybe you’ve made Flubber in your basement lab)
- Formulas and Inventions
- Knowledge (they say it’s power, don’t they?)
- Software (like the web browser you’re reading this on)
- Works of artistic, literary, or musical nature (like this one, although I wouldn’t go as far as to call it “art”)
As you can see, the umbrella for intellectual property is rather broad. With our digital marketplace, the realm of patentable, trademarkable, and copyrightable ideas is ever-growing. But for that, we need the other half of this puzzle.
Copyright is defined as: “Legal monopoly that protects published or unpublished original work (for the duration of its author’s life plus 50 years) from unauthorized duplication without due credit and compensation.”
In plain English, this means that the owner of a certain intellectual property is protected by copyright laws. This gives the beneficiary unassailable rights.
Rights afforded by copyright
According to the major intellectual-property treaties and multilateral instruments (Berne Convention, Universal Copyright Convention, and WIPO Copyright Treaty), five rights are associated with copyright.
The right to:
- Reproduce a particular work or intellectual property in any form, language or medium. This includes translations, etc.
- Adapt the work, or derive further works from it. Think about the myriad Dracula or Sherlock Holmes adaptations and versions (the IP has been public for a while now). Spinoffs are a great way to think about deriving work from a preexisting one in everyday terms.
- Make and distribute copies as the owner of the IP sees fit. This is self-explanatory; you can sell, give away, copy, and do as you please with your intellectual property.
- Perform it in public. Imagine a theater play or any other similar artistic endeavor that requires an audience.
- To display or exhibit it in public. I just don’t recommend you do this with the minutes of your last shareholder’s meeting.
What are the conditions to apply for a copyright?
The main indicators appear to be originality and creativity. Still, copyright laws are not perfect. What they protect is the “embodiment” and “expression” of an idea, not the idea itself. As you can probably imagine, this type of vagueness opens the door for instances of plagiarism.
Plagiarism is not protected by copyright law per se, although it is openly mocked and derided. Relaying factual information is not seen as plagiarism either. There are only so many ways you can “2+2 = 4” after all.
What about voice over copyright, then?
That’s easy enough after we’ve digested all the previous information. Voiceover pros, either as freelancers or working with a platform, are not normally the right holders for their respective work.
This does not mean you as a voice pro have absolutely no control over the process. What it means is that voice pros and clients enter into a preexisting, generally written, arrangement. This accord generally entails the voice pro giving ownership of the recorded material to the purchaser, i.e. the client.
Now, mind you, this is not universal by any means whatsoever! In fact, these things can get mired in pretty draconian regulations. Because not every country is the same when it comes to IP laws, it’s better to stick to universal guidelines. That is, standards that are true across the board.!
Lawyer and trade-mark agent David R. Canton, affiliated with Harrison Pensa LLP said it best:
“Laws vary by country, and even by state/province within countries. Legal answers always depend on the specific facts at hand, and small changes, in fact, can lead to different results. So my answers here are for general guidance and information only and are not to be considered or relied upon as legal advice.
Another thing to consider is that rights owners vary greatly in their inclination and desire to enforce their IP rights. Some may not care or may let violations slide on the basis that it is good publicity. Others may be overly aggressive and try to stop things that one is legally able to do.”
Remember to check out your local voice-over copyright laws and individual agreements in detail, just to be extra sure!
General Voice over copyright for freelancers
The model for voice over copyright is exactly the same as for licensed film music. That means that the sole owner of the performance is the voice-over artist. In many countries, it’s even illegal to sell the rights to one’s recordings!
What the purchaser is actually acquiring are the rights for the usage of the performance, or Digital Good. Gravy for the Brain defines the four most common factors in voice-over licensing as follows:
- The number of geographical locations the content will be used in.
- How many people will have access to the finished product?
- The number of platforms that the media will be used or displayed.
- The extent of time the duration will be granted for.
This means that, for example, a license for one year and a small audience will be cheaper than one for a multi-year, big-audience contract. If the recordings are to be used globally, that generally incurs proportionally heftier costs. If it’s going to be played on TV, clients will be paying for broadcast rights. This varies on a case-by-case scenario.
Now, this is all standard practice for freelancers, but individual contracts may switch things up. That means that once conditions are agreed upon and stated in writing, that’s it.
Some points you may want to think about before saying “yes”
Since contracts are legally-binding, what should you think about before agreeing to a project? Rates are set according to these usage conditions as well as recording costs, so keep ‘em in mind!
- Where and how will the recording be used?
- How many people do you think the recording will reach?
- How do your clients plan to use it? Will they pay for additional licensing if it becomes necessary?
- Are royalties included in the contract? If you’re going to be doing Audiobooks, you’d better know about this one!
And these are just the tip of the iceberg! Generally, you will be agreeing for different terms with each client, depending on the nature of the project itself. This even applies to portfolios! Make sure that the client is OK with you displaying your work or taking public credit for it. Most will be absolutely cool with it, but some will want you to relinquish all ownership.
The voice over copyright buyout model
If the client requires full usage of the recorded material in perpetuity, this will come up. With the advancement of the digital age, it’s common for clients to want more control. This means that the old model of rates according to recording costs and licenses for usage is being parsed out.
An ever-growing number of clients are looking to buy out the voice-over copyright for good. Departing from the 1-2 year model, this gives clients the right to use, reproduce, and alter the original as much as they see fit. It’s not hard to see with this irks some freelance voice artists, as they no longer have absolute control. Some also perceive this trend as exploitative, since professionals no longer get paid according to how well an ad does, for example.
If an ad did well and a company wanted to keep it running, there was only one option; they would go to the voice pro and say “we want to keep this campaign going for another year.” They’d pay the extended usage fee, and that was it. This will no longer fly, as agencies and outsourcing platforms are favoring a more client-centric approach.
With an industry that’s available to anyone all over the world, the market is flooded with talent. The result is that more people are looking to get their foot in the door. It also means that rates have lowered, and continue their downward trend. Truth be told, clients are no longer expecting to pay hefty fees.
The net result is lower, standardized (but still generally fair) rates. It also means that more and more freelancing and outsourcing platforms give clients full rights. They will still allow completed works to be in a pro’s portfolio, but not for them to be used outside the platform.
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The end result
As they say “them’s the breaks,” and pros have had to adapt to this new model. This doesn’t mean that the high echelons of voice artists eschew the established voice over copyright system. Quite the contrary, as many companies and clients are still willing to pay a premium for seasoned pros.
It’s not bad even for newbies. As they make themselves a name and start to get private bookings, contracts can be renegotiated as needed. That means that, as with everything, the voice over copyright model will be a coexisting of old and new. This is bound to be an exciting time to be working in the voice over industry!
Now, you’re armed with all the knowledge you need to avoid any troubles! Here’s to your voice over success!