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Can you use copyrighted material in your demo? It’s not a simple case of yes or no.

Edge Studio

NOTE: This is the first post in a two-part article. Click here to read part two!

My, how time flies! In our newsletter a dozen years ago, we wrote a few lines about using copyrighted material in demos. And in Should you write your own demo copy? last January, we wrote about how to write demo copy yourself.

It’s a multifaceted issue that deserves revisiting. In fact, even this article can only touch on the various factors involved. That’s one reason why a coach is so important in producing your demo. Not only does an experienced, knowledgeable demo coach play the invaluable role of director, he or she can advise on the script material you (plural) will choose together. It’s not just what you may and may not do, it’s also what you should and should not do.

First, there two fundamental types of demo material: 1) Jobs you were hired to voice and were paid for, and 2) “Simulated” jobs that sound just as good or better in every respect, and that accurately represent what you can do under pressure.

It almost goes without saying that you typically can use a paid recording on your demo, IF it is okay with the client – and by “client” in this case we mean the copyright owner or their agent, not just the producer or whoever paid you. Clients rarely withhold their permission for work that has been openly published. That is, commercials that have aired, products that have been marketed, or other types of recordings that can be heard by the general public.

An exception might be in cases where the script content is proprietary, and even if publicly accessible, the client’s competitors would have to go through hoops to hear or even be aware of it – direct marketing, for example, or an expensive investment guide. (Just because something has been published, that doesn’t necessarily mean it is widely known. For this reason, a direct response ad agency is likely to have a mailbox in its offices where employees can drop off interesting mailers they’ve received at home, etc.) In such a case, you would need to be sure your demo cut is a segment that gives away no trade secret – still with permission, of course.

If the work has not yet aired, been marketed, put into use, etc., then you absolutely must get the client’s permission to use it on your demo. Not only would it be embarrassing to have your demo be the world’s first hearing of their big new-product launch, any sort of premature exposure could do the client great harm.

Robert J. Sciglimpaglia Jr., an attorney who is also a voice artist and actor (and also an Edge Studio coach) states in his book Voice Over Legal:

It has become a custom in the industry, however, that once a spot airs, the copy is fair game, and, truthfully, I have not heard of any cases where a lawsuit has resulted from the use of this type of copy on a demo.

I am quite certain, however, that if a voice over artist uses copy on their demo that was written by an advertising agent (or someone else) for an ad campaign that has not yet aired, then a lawsuit for copyright infringement would result.

You can’t be 100% sure where in this spectrum your paid job lies, so always ask your client for permission before adding the work to your demo and/or website. If you have been in touch with only the producer, and if the producer has a professional understanding of the industry principles involved, go through the producer. Permission in an email will probably suffice.

In addition to the issue of copyrighted copy, there’s the issue of music and sound effects. If a produced recording includes one of these elements, a professional producer will have compensated the cut’s copyright owner in some way (e.g., through a licensing fee), but you should confirm that fact with the producer, as well. If the music’s copyright owner was paid, our understanding is that you can publicize your involvement in the overall production, by way of your demo, under Fair Use.

Next week: Recordings made specifically for your demo