A few years ago, I discovered a site called "FreeSound.org" which sounded quite exciting, but turned out to be rather disappointing because the content was released under the Creative Commons "Sampling+" license, which is not a free license. This made all of the content incompatible with use on free software or free culture projects, and was very frustrating, especially given the name. Last month, though, Creative Commons decided to retire the Sampling+ licenses, and FreeSound.org is rolling out a new site with a license chooser that favors the "CC 0" public domain declaration and the "CC By" attribution licenses -- both compatible with free projects. This will be a big help for free-culture multimedia projects.
Making Movies with Free Software
This article is part of an on-going series on "Making Free Movies with Free Software".
I've reviewed a number of sources for free-licensed sound recordings and sound effects, but the most glaring omission has been the site called "FreeSound.org", which -- you would think -- would be the obvious resource for such projects. And indeed, many projects have used sound from the site, despite the incompatible license.
What's Wrong with the "Sampling" License?
Why is it incompatible? It was a pretty easy mistake to make. After all, FreeSound.org is basically a large collection of "samples" of sound, which can be "remixed" to make new, transformative derivative works in the form of soundscapes, music, or soundtracks for movies. That's what "sampling" is all about, so it seems like using the Creative Commons "Sampling" licenses ought to be the right choice. Right?
Well, no. Because it's not a license for samples. It's a license that allows sampling. If you put a "Sampling" license on a work, then (theoretically, anyway), I can take small samples out of that work and use them in a free-licensed project, and everything should be okay legally.
On FreeSound.org, though, the samples are the complete works covered by the "Sampling" license -- so , what's a sample of a sample? Naively, at least, one might imagine it to be just a few waves of the very short sound files that dominate the site (to be fair, some of the sounds on the site are longer field recordings, and you probably could take samples from it).
It's possible that this judgment is a little hasty. After all, I'm really working from the popular definition of "sampling" and the rather simplistic wording of the Creative Commons "deed" for the Sampling license. Perusing the actual text of the license reveals that what is allowed is derivatives which are "highly transformative of the original". Well, that might turn out to be acceptable -- it depends on whether using a whole work in a new context is considered "transformative" or not.
But it does leave me wondering if I need to ask a lawyer. It's a little vague -- and that can be a chilling effect on re-use. I'm much happier if the work is just flat-out licensed under a CC By or CC 0 (or CC By-SA) license, so I can just recombine it in a new work without having to worry about whether it is legally "transformative" enough.
There is also a finer technical incompatibility which amounts to a use-prohibition that makes the Sampling material incompatible with works licensed under CC By or CC By-SA. If you're interested in these detailed reasons, I think it's best to direct you to Mike Linksvayer's post on the reasons for retiring the Sampling licenses.
So, I'm not the only one to have issues with the "Sampling" licenses, and there are enough problems with the "Sampling" licenses that Creative Commons decided to stop endorsing them as of September 12th, 2011.
Of course, if you are a committed user of the Sampling license, this doesn't mean your license is suddenly void, nor has Creative Commons removed the deed or license text, although they have added a notice about retiring the license. You'll probably continue to see "Sampling" licenses on works for a good while, but Creative Commons will stop suggesting them, and some sites will probably stop providing them as an option.
The new version of the FreeSound.org site includes a number of changes to improve usability, but since I didn't really use the old site, I can't comment to much on the specifics. I can say that the new site is very usable, and I have already had a lot of fun finding sound effects files for my current film project ( Lunatics ).
There are still lots of "Sampling" licensed files on the site -- the majority in fact. But, there are also a substantial number of new files under the new license choices, which are "CC 0", "CC By", and "CC By-NC" (it seems that "CC By-SA" is not represented). I can't use the "Sampling" or "CC By-NC" files, but there are enough of the others to make the site very useful already -- and it's only been a little over a month since the transition!
Of course, with more non-free content than free, you might think it's still very small progress, and indeed, if you had to sift through all of the non-free content, it would be rather tedious. However, the license-based tags provided on the search results page make a big improvement on this. Clicking on "Attribution" or "Public Domain" tags will limit the search appropriately (my only complaint would be that you can't search for both at once). This allows you to go straight to the free sound content which you are looking for.
I do have to say that I think this license search is, as yet, imperfect. After a few tests, I think it misses some files for unknown reasons. Leaving the search unlimited by license seems to include more free-licensed sounds than the numbers by the license tags would suggest. I'm not sure what's going on with that, but I will suggest you try looking through the unlimited list if the specific searches don't work.
At first, I was a little annoyed by the necessity of signing up to the site in order to download the full-resolution sound files, but it turns out that this allows something really cool which the site does: it tracks your downloads, and takes care of the Attribution requirement for you. This is totally cool. Keeping track of correct attributions for passively collaborative contributions is one of the less fun parts of reusing the commons, and for sound effects, the requirement can be pretty burdensome -- a film might use hundreds of sound effects, and keeping track of proper attribution for them all could be a very complex chore. By keeping a record of what sounds you've downloaded, and tracking the correct attribution for each, this new FreeSound.org interface feature is extremely helpful.
So, I congratulate FreeSound.org and Creative Commons on this move, which is likely to be a real boon for free-culture projects!
This work may be distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License, version 3.0, with attribution to "Terry Hancock, first published in Free Software Magazine".