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The Wilhelm scream originated in a 1951 movie called Distant Drums. Since then, it has become a ubiquitous sound effect used in countless movies, TV shows, and video games.

It seems to me that a movie made in 1951 would still be under copyright. Does this mean that Warner Bros could potentially sue practically every production studio for copyright infringement?

Would this be considered "fair use"? On the one hand, it is not a very transformative usage, which is one of the most important components of fair use. But it is a very small portion of the movie. I have no idea how to analyze the sales impact.

Even if it is fair use in terms of the original movie, is there an argument that Ben Burtt would hold a copyright since he is credited with isolating and popularizing the sound?

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The "Wilhelm scream" is (of course) copyrighted. It has been released as part of multiple sound effects libraries. While the licensing of these libraries vary, in general a person or organization will pay a single flat fee for a copy of the sounds in the library and a license to use them as sound effects mixed with an a/v work (a "synchronization" license). The license may be time-limited or perpetual (though works created with the effects within the time limit would still be licensed after it had expired). Sound effects libraries are not particularly expensive, and any studio would likely have several of them available, so presumably the majority of the uses of the Wilhelm Scream were licensed.

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  • "presumably the majority of the uses of the Wilhelm Scream were licensed": only if the licensor of the library were either the owner of the copyright or licensed by the owner to redistribute it in that manner.
    – phoog
    Aug 14, 2021 at 15:47
  • @phoog Yes. And with the ease of obtaining such a license - at this moment, most studios would have one already - the latter is a reasonable assumption to make.
    – Sneftel
    Aug 14, 2021 at 16:21
  • Is it in fact easy to obtain one? How much is Warner Bros. charging?
    – phoog
    Aug 14, 2021 at 16:29
  • My experience is out of date, but likely still on the order of a few hundred dollars per year. To be clear, they wouldn’t just license that clip; they’d get it along with hundreds of other clips.
    – Sneftel
    Aug 14, 2021 at 16:35
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The actual recording, which has apparently been used in many films would be protected by copyright, just like any sound recording, until the copyright expires. Use of that recording without permission would be copyright infringement unless an exception to copyright (such as fair use in the US) applies, and that seems unlikely to be the case.

However, there is no protection on the idea of a scream happening as a character is injured or killed, nor is the scream a musical composition with a composition copyright. A new scream, not made by copying the existing recording, even if it sounds similar to the "Wilhelm scream", would not be covered by the copyright on the existing recording and could be used by its creator or anyone it was licensed to.

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The first question is whether copyright in the work has expired, which given the date of creation means, was it renewed? If not, the movie is in the public domain. Assuming it is still protected, then the question is whether "fair use" would be a viable defenses: maybe, maybe not. If you use the scream in a commercial movie, you are maximally likely to get sued for infringement. Sound effects are a lucrative commercial product: using an effect without buying a proper license has a substantial effect on market that weighs against a fair use analysis.

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  • So does that mean all the productions that use it actually did purchase licenses?
    – SegNerd
    Aug 13, 2021 at 19:44
  • Probably not everybody did.
    – user6726
    Aug 13, 2021 at 22:35

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