The Null Device

How copyright is killing documentaries

As the reach of copyright laws is expanded and rightsholders (or their investors) are demanding as much income from each piece of intellectual property in the asset register, documentary makers are getting the rough end of the pineapple. Old documentaries are becoming illegal to distribute (and effectively disappearing down the memory hole) once their clearance rights expire, and new documentaries are often not being made without wealthy sponsors: (via bOING bOING)
But it's particularly difficult for any documentary-makers relying on old news footage, snippets of Hollywood movies or popular music -- the very essence of contemporary culture -- to tell their stories. Each minute of copyrighted film can cost thousands of dollars. Each still photo, which might appear in a documentary for mere seconds, can run into the hundreds of dollars. And costs have been rising steeply, as film archives, stock photo houses and music publishers realize they are sitting on a treasure trove, Else and other filmmakers say.
The American University study (at is a fascinating, if dispiriting, look at the tricks documentary-makers have to pull to get around copyright restrictions, from turning off all TVs and radios when filming a subject indoors to replacing a clip of people watching the World Series with a shot of professional basketball on the TV set instead because that's what the filmmaker had rights for.
"Why do you think the History Channel is what it is? Why do you think it's all World War II documentaries? It's because it's public-domain footage. So the history we're seeing is being skewed towards what's fallen into public domain," says filmmaker Robert Stone in the American University study.

There are 3 comments on "How copyright is killing documentaries":

Posted by: gjw Tue Jan 18 02:21:24 2005

One would hope (you know, putting faith in the market economy and all) that the rights-holders would adjust their prices so documentary makers are actually able to afford them, rather than pricing them out and selling nothing at all. Of course, the problem with copyright is that the rights holder has a monopoly on any piece of footage - it's not like you can find someone else willing to sell you the same content at a cheaper price.

Posted by: acb Tue Jan 18 09:45:17 2005

The thing is, that would make making documentaries a privilege of well-funded interests, effectively silencing alternative voices.

Posted by: dj Wed Jan 19 05:49:16 2005

It would be interesting to see how 'fair dealing' is interpreted and altered in this instance. Another reason to support public and community broadcasting, although that is not so relevant in the case of popular culture sources, such as tv series or films.

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