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Doc Filmmakers: Rescue Fair Use from the DMCA

We're looking for your story--by January 30. Have you ever found yourself unable to make the documentary work you wanted to make, because you could not access the copyrighted material you needed? That happens to lots of people who could quote copyrighted material—perhaps a clip from a Hollywood film, perhaps a snatch of music—that is locked up in an encrypted DVD. As you know, breaking code on a DVD violates the law—even when you are trying to access content you have a legal right to!

Now, you could be part of making history—by creating an exemption that permits documentary filmmakers to break code in order to access material that they could claim under Fair Use or that is in the public domain.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 (DMCA) is the law that bans breaking code. Even when lawmakers made that law, they knew that it kept people from using their Fair Use rights. So they created a loophole. Every three years, people can ask for an exemption. But they have to be a defined group of people (say, documentary filmmakers) and they have to have a good reason (for instance that they are unable to do their work properly).

The Center, working with the USC Intellectual Property & Technology Law Clinic at USC Law School, Michael Donaldson, Kartemquin Films, IDA, Arthur Dong, and Robert Bahar, are working to get an exemption for documentary filmmakers. It’s down to the wire, and we could still use good examples. We’re at the reply-comments stage.

If you have a story that shows the need of documentary filmmakers to have this exemption—a story that shows how your work was hampered, made less, or impaired because you could not get access to copyrighted material that you could otherwise use—could you let us know? Please send your stories, questions or comments to Ashlee Lin at alin [AT] law.usc.edu or Christopher Perez at cperez [AT] law.usc.edu by Friday, January 30.

The exemption request was submitted to the Copyright Office earlier this month and can be viewed on the Copyright Office's website at http://www.copyright.gov/1201/2008/comments/kartemquin-ida.pdf.