Huck’s guide to making machinima in Second Life part seven: respecting copyright

At the end of part six of this series, I said I’d write one more entry, “which will be something of a mixed bag of bits and pieces, including a couple of editing tips and some stuff about copyrighted materials.” When I sat down to write this, however, I realised pretty quickly that copyright ‘stuff’ wasn’t going to fit all that easily into just a segment. So you’re getting a whole post on the subject. Sorry. I know it’s not the most stimulating of topics, but it is really important to have a working knowledge of this stuff. The rules on this get broken all the time, but you shouldn’t infer from that that they’re toothless or unimportant. They’re not either of those things. And, even if you decide that a little bending here and there won’t hurt anyone, it’s a good idea to at least know what the rules are you’re bending.

The good news is you don’t have to suffer me writing at length about how audio-visual copyright infringement laws work because I came across the video below by the very talented Tom Scott, which explains this far more clearly than I ever could ever hope to. It’s a longer-than-YouTube-average watch at 40 min, but it does a great job and I highly recommend you watching it.

To summarise, then, using other people’s music, sound effects and images is a minefield and you need to be very, very careful. Not only is it highly likely that you will be infringing copyright by using these, but YouTube will know that your video is doing this through its content match algorithms. Of course, you don’t have to publish on YouTube, but I’ll be using this as the assumed platform throughout this article since it’s the most popular, and other platforms such as Vimeo have their own content matching processes and policies.

The degree to which copyright infringement will be problematic for you depends in part on whether you want to make money out of your machinima. If you don’t care about that and are happy for other people to receive any income generated from the monetisation of your video, then – to some extent – you could probably get away with the odd match here and there. Of course, you would have to be eligible in the first place for YouTube’s monetisation programme, which requires a minimum number of 4,000 followers. I’m nowhere near that right now, though it’s conceivable that I could be one day.

But YouTube monetisation – the process of getting money from your videos as a result of Google placing ads in them – isn’t the whole picture here. What if your film has multiple pieces of other people’s work? What if the creator of a piece of work you use objects to it being used in your film? And, even if you aren’t receiving money directly from the video, it could still be viewed in legal terms as a piece of commercial, promotional work if the raised profile it gives you results in increased sales of other things you make money from.

This later category is probably where my movie, STÖMOL, fits. I never had any intention of making money out of its monetisation (if that opportunity ever arose): my motivation to create it was entirely intrinsic. However, I do stand to gain financially from it indirectly, even if these ways are small. First, and most overtly, there’s the range of SL merchandise I created for the movie. I created these for fun and out of interest to see if they sold, but that’s neither here nor there – I’m charging for them, so it’s financial benefit. Second, it could be argued that STÖMOL might have brought a new audience to my books – also charged-for products – and so I could benefit financially in that way too. The income I get from my books is tiny – a few dollars a month – but the amount, ultimately, is irrelevant, and who’s to say that it might not be substantially increased by STÖMOL or any other video project I embark upon in the future?

I’m not trying to be hard-line here – if you conclude that the chances of my movie being classed as a commercial project are wafer thin then, at an intuitive level, I agree with you. But some of us prefer to play things on the ultra-cautious side – and I happen to be one of those people. So, when I embarked on STÖMOL, I did so with the intention of making it as compliant with copyright infringement laws as I possibly could.

Music

This, of course, is the big one, most likely to get people into trouble. Music rights are very assertively defended by the big labels. If you want to add music to your movie and not risk a copyright strike, you should consider the following options.

Use copyright-free music.

The place where most people go for this is the YouTube Audio Library. This is a library of music and sound effects maintained by YouTube that you’re free to use for commercial purposes. BUT you should note that not all content in this library is ‘public domain’ – a very large part of it requires some form of attribution in your work. So don’t just download without checking that – and make a careful note of the attribution requirements of any track you download in case you use it. More on attribution later.

There are other sites on the internet you can use that provide free music for your projects. For example, I used musopen.org for a couple of pieces of classical piano music in STÖMOL (once again, check the attribution requirements for any music you download from here). I’ve also used a couple of tracks from Kevin MacLeod’s website for past videos.

Those two sites seem pretty solid, so far as I’m able to judge. But be careful. There are several other sites that offer free music, where the music has been uploaded by users. On many of these sites, you essentially have no guarantee that the music actually is free at all – it might be that a user uploaded a track and tagged it as public domain when in fact they don’t have the rights to it at all. There are plenty of people out there still who still think that anything they can obtain on the internet – music, sound and images – is freely distributable. Don’t base your liability on their understanding. Check everything as much as you’re able to. For example, enter the name of your downloaded track into Google and see if that track is available from any other site. Does it appear to be from the same creator (if yes then it becomes more likely that they do actually own the rights to it; if no it becomes more likely that one person might have ripped off the track from the other)? Are the attribution requirements the same in each place? If you find you have doubts about an item, it’s probably safer not to use it.

Commission your own music

I got lucky here – I have an RL friend who is very talented in composing electronic music. So that’s what I used for most of STÖMOL. In fact, realising his music would be the perfect fit (and gaining his consent to use it) was a key catalyst to actually making my movie, since I really didn’t want to use music from the YouTube library for any machinima I created). If you don’t know anyone with these skills, there are sites where you can commission work at a low cost (for example, fiverr.com).

Create your own music

Daunting though this might sound, it’s never been easier to create music than it is today. When I say ‘easy’ here, I’m referring to the availability of tools rather than the process of composing (or, indeed, the ease of use of the tools themselves). But you might not need a work of musical genius for your soundtrack. A single, repeating piano note, for example, might be just the right touch to add extra tension to your movie. In the film I’m working on right now I’ve created my own soundtrack element which is essentially a single held note using a strings sound.

The software tools you will need to create music fall into two categories:

DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) can be thought of as virtual recording studios. They allow you to arrange notes, assign instruments to them, insert samples (sections of recorded audio, for example a recording of you singing), adjust volume and more. When you’ve finished work on your track, a DAW will allow you to export it out as an MP3 or WAV file. You only need one of these. I use Cakewalk, which is free.

VSTs (Virtual Studio Technology) are plugins for DAWs. They can be thought of as virtual instruments. So a VST might consist of a single sound (for example, a piano sound) or a whole range of different sounds (such as those you might get on a keyboard). You can pay big money for some VSTs, but there are also loads that you can get for free.

Say, for example, you want to create a piece of music for piano and violin: you might find one VST that has both of these sounds to your satisfaction or you might instead use two separate VSTs, each with one of the sounds. Once the DAW has recognised the VST(s), you would create two tracks – one for piano, one for violin – and then link each track to the VST you want to use. VSTs come with their own unique interface, so you would then switch to that for each track and instruct the VST to use the sound that you want. Then it’s just a question of laying out the notes. Most DAWs will allow you to use an external keyboard to perform these, though what I tend to do is arrange them with my mouse in ‘piano roll’ mode.

The more precise details on how to use DAWs and VSTs are, of course, beyond the scope of this article; hopefully, however, this has served to point you in the right direction.

Sound effects

Second Life is replete with beautiful regions, lovingly created with meticulous attention to detail. This detail often includes soundscapes. At beaches you can listen to the sound of waves breaking as you walk; in cities you can take in traffic sounds or the background chatter in coffee shops; in sci-fi installations, flying cars might whizz past with an electronic hum. When you open a door you get a door-opening sound. When you fire a gun you get a gunshot sound. And so on. You might think, then, that there’s not much requirement for additional sound effects when filming machinima. You might think that bit’s been done for you already.

Alas, it’s not that simple, for the principle reason that you have no idea where those sounds came from in the first place. Perhaps the SL content creator went to the effort of creating their own sounds or sourcing public domain sounds, but you have no way of knowing this. Even if they have used sounds that are freely available for projects such as their sim, these sounds might still require attribution, and how are you going to find out what they are and who they’re by?

So, for STÖMOL, I made the decision to record without sound and then add in sound effects I’d sourced myself. I won’t lie, it was a mammoth task that ended up taking several months. It was quite fun, though, seeing my silent movie come to life as extra layers of sound got added in.

I did this in two ways.

Sourcing free SFX on the internet

This, it turned out, was easier than I thought it would be. There is a HUGE repository of free sound effects at freesound.org. These are all individually licensed with specific Creative Commons licenses, so you have to check these for each sound you download. Some are listed as public domain (CC0 1.0 Universal, in Creative Commons terms): you can use these (and modify them) however you want to, and without any requirement for attribution. Some allow you to use the sound freely for both personal and commercial projects, provided you give an attribution identifying the name of the sound effect and if you changed it (CC BY 3.0 in Creative Commons terms), and some will only allow you to use the sound freely if it is a non-commercial project (CC BY-NC 3.0). For STÖMOL I made the decision to use only the sounds from freesound.org which were licensed as CC0 1.0 or CC BY 3.0. Although I never really thought of my movie as a commercial project, I reasoned that potentially someone might successfully argue that it was, based on the reasons I gave earlier.

Making your own sounds

In part six of this series, I mentioned that I bought the H2n Zoom Handy Recorder. I bought this primarily for recording narrative and dialogue, but also because – since it records all sounds locally on its own SD card – it’s portable and I could use it to record some sound effects too. Whilst it was very time intensive, it was really fun to do this for the few SFX I couldn’t find on freesound.org, and I learned a lot about foley as a result of this. For example, for STÖMOL I needed a door hiss sound and couldn’t find anything on freesound.org that was quite what I wanted. So I made my own by recording the sound made by unscrewing the top of a new two litre soda bottle. You can hear it here.

Of course, you’ll also need a good sound editor such as Audacity so that you can manipulate these sounds once you’ve recorded them.

Images

One of the problems I had when filming STÖMOL was billboards. When you walk around many sci-fi regions you’ll see electronic billboards everywhere, and many of these carry images lifted straight from popular sci-fi TV and movies. In NuNoX, for example, there was a billboard depicting the hologram character Joi (from Blade Runner 2049). If that had been displaying in the background in a scene featuring one of my characters then I’d have been using a copyrighted image in my movie. Not good. Would the owners of that image really care enough to take action against me, especially when it could be argued in the example given that inclusion of the image could constitute free advertising? Maybe not, but I’d rather not take any chances. Additionally, an image on display in a region might not be the intellectual property of a huge media corporation – it might be the work of an independent photographer, and I don’t want to rip people like that off because, well, I don’t want to rip them off.

So any image which I thought might possibly be the property of someone other than the sim owner had to go. And this is another place in which Firestorm’s derender tool comes in very handy. Right-click on an object, select More and then More again, select Derender and then decide whether you want this item to pop out of your view permanently or just for the duration of your current visit. If the item you want to derender is part of a larger collection of linked objects which includes stuff you do want to be in shot, right-click the object and select Edit, then in the edit window click ‘Edit linked objects’ and click on the specific thing you want gone. Then repeat the derender steps above and that piece should then disappear, leaving the rest of the linked objects intact.

Models

If you’re starting to think this is all far too complicated and scary, and maybe you’ll just not bother filming machinima at all, I get you. I went through a similar phase myself. And there was a point at which I drew a line and decided there was nothing realistically I could do about copyright: this was when I started thinking about models.

By models, I mean of course all the stuff that you see in SL. buildings, vehicles, furniture, plants, avatars and clothing. Someone has made all of this stuff, and this gives rise to two issues. First, am I ok to include this stuff in my movie on general principle? On this point I think things are relatively safe. No-one seeks permission from the maker of, say, a table to include their table in a film or TV programme. Of course, there are some models where extreme caution would be required. Any vehicles that are clearly copies of vehicles in popular movies, for example – a Star Wars X-wing fighter or the Starship Enterprise – these are not ‘everyday objects’ but designs specifically created for someone else’s project. Using props like this is likely to be a bad idea, especially if they play a central role – though using them in a form of parody of the movie or genre of movie they come from might be ok.

But what if the everyday object in shot is using a texture that the creator downloaded from somewhere? For example, I recently used a downloaded texture for my 70s Office Cubicles product. The texture was free to use with attribution, so I dutifully included the licence text in a notecard with the product, but that wouldn’t be apparent to someone who didn’t own the object and wanted to film it. And what if the everyday object is a model ripped from other content (that I don’t recognise), such as 3D video game? How can I be certain that these items – made not by one company, but by hundreds of different content creators, each with their own personal knowledge state of or code of conduct for copyright issues – be completely ok?

Well, I can’t. So this is where I drew my line. I would worry about the things that I could do something about and not worry about the things I could do nothing about. The alternative would have been to have created everything seen in my movie from scratch – something I lacked the time, talent and budget for, and which would rather ruin the whole premise of a movie filmed in Second Life – or, simply, not to film anything at all.

Attribution

Attribution is the ray of light in all this murkiness. Attribution is your friend. Thanks to the Creative Commons licenses, we now have a standardised system for both understanding how we can use a piece of artistic work and how we can credit its creator. Attribution helps, not hinders, the creative process.

But it does require work. For STÖMOL, I decided I wanted to go beyond the bare minimum for attribution and provided credit for all sounds I used, including CC0 1.0 sounds (even though they don’t actually require it). This occupied a huge section of the end credits to the movie. I also decided to give attribution for all the outfits used on the main characters in the end credits, all the animators whose animations I used and all the locations I filmed in. In an ideal world, I would have liked to have given attribution for everything seen in the movie, but the time required to catalogue every single object visible in shot would have been huge, and especially difficult to find when so many of the regions used were only open for a finite time.

The easiest way of doing this is to create your attribution list at the start of your project and add to it each time you use something you need to credit. Each time you film in a new location, make a note of the location name and who created it – you’ll need to contact the location owner to get permission to film there (as per SL TOS), so you might as well make a note of their name when you do so. If you leave this until the end of your project, the location might not exist any more, so doing it then could end up being much harder. Similarly, if you decide to credit animators, make a note of these as you go (I decided to credit animators rather than list every single animation I used).

And, for sound effects, this process is particularly important: you don’t have to credit locations (though, in my opinion, it’s right to do this – and many location owners will ask that you do so when they give filming consent) and animators, but you do have to give credit for any sound effects you use where the license requires attribution. You should record in your list the exact name of the sound effect, the name of the person who created it (the user name should be fine, if you downloaded from a site such as freeseound.org, since this will enable people to find other work by that person), the URL of the effect and the license. It’s also good practice to include a link back to the Creative Commons license, which I did in my credits at the end of the SFX section.

Where to give attribution

Currently I give attribution for all the media I used in the end credits section of STÖMOL. There is an argument to be made that this should instead/also be in the description of the video (some content providers make this a requirement). I chose not to do this on the grounds that if the video appeared elsewhere – for example, embedded on someone’s web page – then I could be sure that the credits would be included as part of that. As another example, STÖMOL is currently included as part of the SUPERNOVA film festival streaming service. I might still add them to the description though on the film’s YouTube page.

That’s all I can think of for now. I’ll try to update this page if I learn something new that is relevant (or if I’ve got something wrong) – so if you have experience of copyright law please feel free to comment below.

2 thoughts on “Huck’s guide to making machinima in Second Life part seven: respecting copyright

  1. Commercial agencies can grab Creative Commons attributed music on YouTube, and you can’t argue it. Even the musician’s agent will struggle (I know, it happened, and I still have the correspondence with the musician). Apart from only offering a limited range of Creative Commons attributions. It’s why I took my work down from YouTube, and all my 60 videos are on Vimeo. Creative Commons is about principles in the end.

    Liked by 2 people

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