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Copyright Backgrounder

This concise background document describes what copyright is and what can be copyrighted, as well as what material is in the public domain and what is fair useable. Michael Donaldson is an attorney in Los Angeles, many of whose clients are leading documentary filmmakers. His book, Clearance and Copyright (Silman-James Press, October 2003), from which much of this information has been drawn, is widely regarded as a basic text for documentary filmmakers. Donaldson also contributed his expertise to the Documentary Filmmakers' Statement of Best Practices in Fair Use.


Repurposing and Rights: A Non-Profit Summit

On May 22 at American University the Center hosted a convening, "Repurposing and Rights: A Non-Profit Summit," composed of public broadcasters, librarians, archivists, scholars, lawyers and new media experts. The group discussed the problems of repurposing audio-visual material in a digital era. The topics included user interfaces, third-party rights problems, changing contract terms and the challenges and opportunities of digital rights management.


Expanding User Rights For Documentary Filmmakers

In 2005, academics, representatives of legal clinics, documentary filmmakers, litigators, and leaders of non-profit entities met to discuss current activities to improve documentary filmmakers’ ability to use copyright law. The convening revealed the importance of research on actual practice, the crafting of remedies appropriate to and with participation from creative communities, of developing and publicizing models for exercising user rights that other creative communities can apply mutatis mutandis; the crucial role for legal support for community practice; the potential of policy interventions; and the fruitfulness of communication and collaboration.


Go to: Expanding User Rights For Documentary Filmmakers

The Good, The Bad and the Confusing: User-Generated Video Creators on Copyright

How do creators of content on the plethora of sites that accept online video understand their rights and responsibilities regarding intellectual property? Addressing this question is challenging, since the pool of creators is not only diffuse but constantly changing. In this study, undergraduate and graduate college students who upload online video were asked to describe their practices and attitudes on using copyrighted material to make new work and on the value to them of their own copyright. Includes links to press coverage of report.


Unauthorized: The Copyright Conundrum in Participatory Video

Suppose you're running an online video platform, and people start uploading video that uses other people's work. How should unauthorized use of other people's work be treated in this new environment? The Center for Media & Social Impact and American University's law school brought together executives from online video platforms in both commercial and noncommercial media with lawyers and scholars, to discuss how to manage unauthorized use.


"Yes, You Can!" – Where You Don't Even Need 'Fair Use'

The answers to some of filmmakers’ most common clearance questions don’t really lie in the realm of “fair use” at all, but fall under the heading of “free use.” This helpful guide by Peter Jaszi offers insight into what falls into the category of "free use."


Go to: "Yes you can!" on free use

Fair Use: An Essential Feature of Copyright

Testimony by Peter Jaszi explaining the legal significance of the doctrine of fair use for creators, consumers and commerce. Given at the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce's Hearing on “Fair Use: Its Effects on Consumers and Industry.”


Go to: Full Transcript of Peter Jaszi's Testimony on Fair Use

How to Find Out What is in the Public Domain

Professor Peter Hirtle explains when copyrighted material falls into the public domain. This is a great chart to hang onto for future reference.


So you have a fair use question?

You have a fair use question. Congratulations on exercising your fair use rights, which expand your freedom of expression! Your first resort, when you have a fair use question, is to find out if a community has created a code of best practices in fair use that would apply to you. Here is a list of the extant codes of best practices in fair use. 


Untold Stories: Creative Consequences of the Rights Clearance Culture for Documentary Filmmakers

The Documentary Filmmakers' Statement of Best Practices began with a study demonstrating the problems that documentary filmmakers face in getting and controlling rights for their creative work. Here is the 2004 report, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.


Go to: Untold Stories (PDF)