Public Domain, Free Use and Copyleft Media
It feels good to get free stuff. In fact that’s probably why many of us get on the Web in the first place. But behind the usual blogs and Web sites lies untold fortunes of free-use content, all available for you to use legally and with a clean conscience. All the resources you need are there, whether to explore literature spanning the human experience or to find thousands of photos to spice up any project. There are even sites to help you understand all the copyright snags you might encounter along the way.
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The Internet is a noisy place, with many audio offerings such as sound effects, midi clips and sheet music, entire albums or music samples, and blogs devoted to free sound. With almost half of Americans saying they downloaded music from the Web last year, copyright holders are struggling to keep up with the economic and legal ramifications of this expanding industry. These sites will help you grab all the goods you need while toeing the legal line.
- The copyright status of music can be tricky. Although there is a great deal of sheet music in the public domain, specific recordings and adaptations of it might not be. With record companies on the offensive these days, a careful examination of the legal status of any piece of music is recommended to avoid any legal unpleasantness.
- Musicians are more particular about rights than most other artists online, and the specificity of the Creative Commons licenses they use is often greater. Read each license carefully.
- Check out some music blogs if you're dying for some tunes but aren't quite up to date on the latest music.
- There are many different file formats for audio these days. Although most will sound like what you expect, one format-known as MIDI-is actually a simplified, computer-produced sound file. It will give you the idea of a song, but don't expect orchestral quality, or vocals of any kind.
For sheet music and MIDI ...
The Choral Public Domain Library
(CPDL) wiki lists a rather large number of composers and titles in the public domain, providing information, links, MIDI and mp3 recordings, lyrics, and sheet music for most. Because this is a wiki the consistency of the entries is not perfect, but the sheer volume of the site makes it useful for anyone interested in classical music.
expands on the idea of the CPDL with an easy-to-use advanced search function. The site also uses LilyPad typesetting software on some of the titles which produces natural-looking transcriptions. The search results are displayed in bulky but informative tables that will let you know exactly what you're getting, such as file types available, copyright status, publication date, and more.
's Sheet Music page follows its traditional model: brute-force searching, a homely look, and no-frills download formats. Despite these drawbacks, Project Gutenberg is as trustworthy as it gets when it comes to legal copyrights.
contains the lyrics and MIDI recordings for a substantial collection of early-American music. All the recordings are based on sheet music in the public domain.
provides the scores and MIDI recordings to a large body of choral music. Categories include individual composers, Christmas music, traditional folk songs, and more.
has taken all the obscure, unrecorded works of Beethoven and fashioned them into MIDI files so they might once again be heard. Though these file are copyrighted, the site has granted free use as long as you include proper attribution to their site.
For sound effects ...
Partners in Rhyme
not only has a large database of free-use sound effects and music, their audio tutorials and audio-related articles will help you understand what you're listening to and how to start producing your own work.
A1 Free Sound Effects
has a generic collection of sound effects that should suit any of your more basic sound needs-just don't be put off by the cheesy graphics and black background that give the site a less-than-professional look.
' search engine allows you to specify quite well what you'd want your sound file results to look like, including criteria such as sample rate and file size. Each result is displayed with an accompanying amplitude/frequency waveform picture to give a visual representation of the sound, and the "Sounds-Like Search" feature lets you find sounds based on a sample sound you provide. Using such a search engine, the copyright status of your results will need to be researched.
is another basic sound-effects database with a decent catalog of sounds. Its simple design and well-organized information make finding what you need a cinch.
For music and samples ...
is one of several sites that host Creative Commons-licensed music for artists that want to get their work exposure. A good design makes this site easy to look at, but depending on your browser some of the artist pages can be a bit buggy. The site's use of the peer-to-peer networks bitTorrent and eMule makes this site unique. Their collection is weighted heavily toward electronica and is a good place to check out if that is your cup of tea.
The Free Music Project
, part of the greater freeculture.org organization, offers a service similar to Jamendo with a pared-down design and interface. This site's uniqueness stems from its origins: all music uploaded before April 1, 2007 will be included in the One Laptop Per Child project, whose aim is to make laptop computers available to children worldwide.
's focus is sound and sound alone. This database of sound samples is rather extensive, and the convenient sound-characteristic tagging system makes finding the sound you want easy.
's site is a slick and legal way to access tons of samples and remixes, and use them to make your own. Community based and encouraging creativity, this site requires all submitted content to be covered by a Creative Commons license, so feel free to let your music-making mind run wild here without worrying about a legal lashing.
offers up free remixes of music that they deem "funky." You'll find artists like the Beastie Boys, Le Tigre, David Byrne, and lots of others. The site is easy on the eyes with a fresh design and cool graphics, and is organized intuitively. Check out the "Music Revolution" section for more information on the "copyright revolution."
is a good place to go for further exploration into the world of open-source/free-use music. Along with relevant news, it lists some great blogs, collaborations, music hubs, and other sites dedicated to open music.
is another tag-based, free-use music archive. Its minimalist design is lovely to look at but at first can leave you guessing what to do with the site. Nonetheless, take a gander at its musical offerings, or if you're interested in the free-culture movement follow the "free" section's long list of sites to learn more.
' site caters to a dance music audience. Anything with a big beat and a liberal license can find its home here.
is simply a list of all the full length, free-use recordings on Wikipedia and the WikiCommons.
Public Domain 4 U
has a library of about 100 early recordings, including many blues greats, some with photos of the artist.
's easy site hosts a good collection of classical music recordings in the public domain. Along with each piece is displayed a concise explanation of the composer and usually the specific piece itself, mostly taken from Wikipedia.
is a custom-made Google search engine created to aid your search for various free-use music. The simplicity and power of Google devices makes this a good tool for the site-weary.
For music blogs ...
's blog is the place to go if you're in for some dance/trance but don't want to navigate the jungle of the Dance-Industries site, from which most of this blog's picks are taken.
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