Navigating the murky waters of digital audio rights


The mission of Pop Up Archive is to make audio searchable and build an archive of sound from journalists, oral historians, and media organizations from around the world.

Support for Creative Commons licensing is on our 2014 roadmap. But one thing we’ve learned: the vagaries of rights and licensing for digital audio are too complicated for Creative Commons to solve entirely.

The six licenses CC licenses are a seminal step toward facilitating safe sharing and reuse of digital media on the web. (Read about the CC licenses.) Creative Commons is great when you know your rights to a work. But what happens when you don’t know your rights? We’ve seen these questions from:

  • Retired journalists
    “What happens if I digitize and publicly upload audio I recorded as work-for-hire and of which I have the only surviving copy?”

  • Oral history archives
    “What if we don’t know enough about the provenance of an audio file to determine the rights holder or their wishes?”

  • Open media advocates like @kreynen
    (see Nov. 2013 Twitter exchange below — wow, discussing licensing is tough when limited to 140 characters)

At Pop Up Archive, facilitating CC licensing is part of a larger goal to help establish best practices for safe sharing of digital audio. We work with a lot of public media producers, non-profits, and scholars — and some commercial media entities, too. Many of the rights holders to archival recordings can’t be found, or are multinational corporations that have absorbed many smaller stations over the years (see this NPR blog post from Feb 2013 for more on why U.S. copyright law effectively locks up many archival recordings). We’ve seen too many opportunities go to waste because creators and educators are afraid to navigate the murky digital copyright waters by themselves.

We’re making a long list of all the frustrations we hear about digital audio rights, and we want to hear from you. We’ll use this blog as a space for sharing the lessons we learn.

For starters, one complexity we encountered writing our Terms of Service: what happens if someone wants to upload another creator’s CC-licensed content to our site? In order to provide their services, many platforms that take user-generated content (i.e. YouTube) require a broader license than Creative Commons affords (thanks to Elliot Harmon and Eric Steuer for their help):

  • CC licenses do not allow sublicensing.
  • Many platforms require that the user affirm that the content is her own.
  • The license that uploaders grant to the platform is, in many cases, broader than the CC license (allowing commercial use by the platform, use without attribution, etc.) But this issue is sort of rendered irrelevant by the first two points. Sublicensing would not be allowed even if the terms were the same as or narrower than the CC license.

So: the terms required by most platforms for digital media (i.e. YouTube) make it technically illegal to upload others’ CC-licensed works to those platforms. For example: when you upload a video to YouTube, you give YouTube a nonexclusive, worldwide, royalty-free, no fee license to encode, reproduce, modify, transmit, distribute and create derivative works. That license gives YouTube the right to transcode your video so that it plays back across multiple browsers and caption it for you automatically — but there could be other ways of accomplishing this.

Where to begin? We want to forge a path for platforms to deliver their services but also allow third-party, CC-licensed content without requiring a sublicense. Pop Up Archive can’t transcode or transcribe audio files unless we have rights to do so, but we’re working with Creative Commons to make our terms less restrictive.

Platforms like ours that manipulate user-generated content as part of their services can and should keep working to improve end-user license agreements (EULAs). But a lot of people don’t ever read EULAs, and websites are usually slow to update them.

It would also help if there were a simple, powerful, common technology for attribution (for comparison: Github does a great job of showing the provenance of code stored in public repositories). If it were easier for hosted platforms to adopt a common attribution technology, we might live to see a day when those platforms can accept CC-licensed works while honoring the terms of the CC licenses.  

We agree with Dan Cohen, director of the Digital Public Library of America, that while technical and legal solutions are part of the equation, we need to address rights issues from a social perspective, too. For a quick crash course, the Open GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums) principles are a helpful starting point, but they speak more to institutions than individuals.

We know this is tricky — that’s why we want to open a dialogue about it. So grab an oar, and let’s paddle these waters together.

Reply in the comments to this post, drop us a line (edison at popuparchive dot org), or if you’re up for a challenge, see how deftly you can tweet about copyright. We’re all ears @PopUpArchive.

(If you’re curious for the full Twitter exchange referenced above, we’ve embedded it here.)

In memory of Pete Seeger

Studs Terkel talks with Pete Seeger about the folk revival in this 1955 interview at WFMT, recently digitized by the Library of Congress.

(Click “Listen in Pop Up Archive” for more Seeger clips. And stay tuned for 7,500 Studs Terkel broadcasts coming soon as part of the official Studs Terkel archive!)

Five Cool Things I’ve Worked On So Far

My dream is to make our archive open and accessible — but also to add context and value to current reporting efforts.”


I’ve been at NPR for four months now and wanted to highlight a couple of neat projects that I’ve worked on so far. I should say: my gig is not all lollipops and roses. Sometimes it’s quite stressful (which is the nature of this daily, deadline-driven business…), sometimes I’m completely…

Five Cool Things I’ve Worked On So Far

For you, a brand-spanking-new embeddable player and more pro tips:

PROTIP: Grab the embed code for any Pop Up Archive audio file to make it appear and play on your WordPress, Tumblr, or other site.


See it in action: take a listen to the archival gems in Pop Up Archive’s 
sonic year in review.

PROTIP: Download your original audio file and/or transcript with timestamps every 30 seconds.
PROTIP: For guidelines on what type of audio results in the most accurate transcripts, read our Audio Quality FAQ.
PROTIP: Add tags and other metadata (date, interviewee, description) by clicking the Edit button for any item:
PROTIP: Use the persistent audio player to keep listening to an audio file even when you navigate to other pages on the site:

PROTIP: Our public Internet Archive collections have thousands of old sounds waiting to be discovered. Current favorites: WWII broadcasts and NASA audio.

PROTIP: Create your own unlimited Internet Archive collections for free, with perks! Internet Archive collections get full transcripts and tags.


Next up: Creative Commons licenses and excerpting short audio clips from within a larger file. (More on digital audio copyright here, with input from the excellent team at Creative Commons.)

Drop us a line anytime. Questions, complaints, requests, anything.