Jan 292010

The Four Freedoms engraved on a wall at the Fr...

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Google, copyright, and our future.

In early 2002, the filmmaker Grace Guggenheim–the daughter of the late Charles Guggenheim, one of America’s greatest documentarians, and the sister of the filmmaker Davis Guggenheim, who madeAn Inconvenient Truth-decided to do something that might strike most of us as common sense. Her father had directed or produced more than a hundred documentaries. Some of these were quite famous (Nine from Little Rock). Some were well-known even if not known to be by him (Monument to a Dream, the film that plays at the St. Louis arch). Some were forgotten but incredibly important for understanding American history in the twentieth century (A Time for Justice). And some were just remarkably beautiful (D-Day Remembered). So, as curator of his work, Grace Guggenheim decided to remaster the collection and make it all available on DVD, which was then the emerging platform for film.

Her project faced two challenges, one obvious, one not. The obvious challenge was technical: gathering fifty years of film and restoring it digitally. The non-obvious challenge was legal: clearing the rights to move this creative work onto this new platform for distribution. Most people might be puzzled about just why there would be any legal issue with a child restoring her father’s life’s work. After all, when we decide to repaint our grandfather’s old desk, or sell it to a neighbor, or use it as a workbench or a kitchen table, no one thinks to call a lawyer first. But the property that Grace Guggenheim curates is of a special kind. It is protected by copyright law.

Documentaries in particular are property of a special kind. The copyright and contract claims that burden these compilations of creativity are impossibly complex. The reason is not hard to see. A part of it is the ordinary complexity of copyright in any film. A film is made up of many different creative elements–music, plot, characters, images, and so on. Once the film is made, any effort at remaking it–moving it to DVD, for example–could require clearing permissions for each of these original elements. But documentaries add another layer of complexity to this already healthy thicket, as they typically also include quotations, in the sense of film clips. So just as a book about Franklin Delano Roosevelt by Jonathan Alter might have quotes from famous people talking about its subject, a film about civil rights produced in the 1960s would include quotations–clips from news stations–from famous people of the time talking about the issue of the day. Unlike a book, however, these quotations are in film–typically, news footage from CBS or NBC.

Whenever a documentarian wanted to include these clips in his film, he would ask CBS or NBC for permission. Most of the time, at least for a healthy fee, CBS and NBC and everyone else was happy to give permission so as to be included. Sometimes they wanted to see first just how the clip would be used. Sometimes they would veto a particular use in a particular context. But in the main there was a healthy market for securing permission to quote. The lawyers flocked to this market for permission. (That’s their nature.) They drafted agreements to define the rights that the quoter would get.

I suspect that most filmmakers never thought for a second about how odd this “permission to quote” was. After all, does an author need to get permission from TheNew York Times when she quotes an article in a book about the Depression? Indeed, does anyone need permission from anyone when quoting public statements, at least in a work talking about those statements? Ordinarily, one would think that this sort of “use” is “fair,” under the rules of copyright at least. But most documentarians–indeed, most filmmakers–did not care to work through the complexity and the uncertainty of a doctrine such as “fair use.” Instead they agreed to licenses that govern–exclusively, as they typically asserted–the rights to use the quotes that were in the film. So, for example, the license would insist that the only right to use the film came from the license itself (not fair use). And it would then specify the scope and term of the right–five years, North American distribution, for educational use.

What that agreement means is that if the filmmaker wanted to continue to distribute the film after five years, he would have to go back to the original rights holder and ask for permission again. That task may not sound so difficult if you think about one clip in one documentary. But what about twenty, thirty, or more? And even assuming that you can find the original holders of the rights, they now have you over a barrel–as the owners of the famous series Eyes on the Prize discovered. Jon Else, the producer and cinematographer for the series, described the problem in 2004 (extraordinary efforts have now resolved it):

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