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Fair Use at AFI Docs

At a panel I moderated at AFI Docs, I was astonished to see a packed room at the Newseum in the middle of a weekday--for a session on intellectual property. But filmmakers, lawyers, advocates, and filmgoers all brought tough questions and curiosity.

Lawyer John Simson explained how the Congressionally-created SoundExchange permits musicians to recoup revenues from streaming media. NBC Universal’s David Green described various ways in which NBC Universal and its peers are safeguarding their work from illegal uploaders and from the international trade in pirated DVDs. He urged filmmakers as well to use NBC Universal’s streamlined process for identifying and licensing archival clips, and won some instant friends from filmmakers who have longstanding frustrations in the licensing process.

Filmmaker Katy Chevigny of Big Mouth Productions, talked about the importance of fair use and the Documentary Filmmakers’ Statement of Best Practices  to her filmmaking. Before she had the Statement to work with, she said, she paid a price for not understanding her fair use rights in the making of Deadline, a documentary about capital punishment.

“We had a great clip of Walter Kronkite explaining the issue,” she said. But because they did not realize they could make a fair use of the material in those earlier days, they tried unsuccessfully to license it. Eventually, they chose to make use of a lesser-known figure and a less-succinct piece of archival film, a choice that she felt was second-best both from an artistic perspective and for narrative efficiency.

Several filmmakers also told me informally of the value of the Documentary Filmmakers’ Statement in their work at the festival. It’s good to see that the Statement becoming a routine tool of documentary practice.