Sunday, October 16, 2005

The Hidden Cost of Documentaries - New York Times

Is copyright law going to mean the end of documentary filmmaking--and low budget, independent filmmakin in general?

Michael Vaccaro, a fourth grader, had just left P.S. 112 in Brooklyn and was headed home with his mother. Two filmmakers were in front of him, their camera capturing his every movement on video, when his mother's cellphone rang.
"It was such an indicator of today's culture," said Amy Sewell, a producer of "Mad Hot Ballroom," the documentary that follows New York City children as they learn ballroom dancing and prepare for a citywide contest. "Michael's mom had just asked him how school was, her cellphone rings, she answers it, and the look on his face says, 'I don't get to tell my mom about my day.'"...
Perfect, but a problem. Had the ringtone been a common telephone ring, the scene could have dropped into the final edit without a hitch, the moment providing a quick bit of emotional texture to the film. But EMI Music Publishing, which owns the rights to "Gonna Fly Now," was asking the first-time producer for $10,000 to use those six seconds.
Ms. Sewell considered relying on fair use, the aspect of copyright law that allows the unlicensed use of material when the public benefit significantly outweighs the costs or losses to the copyright owner. But her lawyer advised against it. "I'm a real Norma Rae-type personality," Ms. Sewell said, "but the lawyer said, 'Honestly, for your first film, you don't have enough money to fight the music industry.' " After four months of negotiating - "I begged and begged," Ms. Sewell said - she ended up paying EMI $2,500. (Total music clearance costs for "Mad Hot Ballroom," which featured songs of Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee, came to $170,000; total costs over all were about $500,000.)...
In another change, said Peter Jaszi, a law professor at American University, "rights holders are slicing their bundle of rights in finer and finer ways and selling them off in smaller and smaller pieces." He asked: "Would music copyright owners 10 years ago have predicted they'd be making a substantial part of their money over ringtones on cellphones?" (It's now a reported $3 billion industry.) As a result, he said, there's been "a tremendous upsurge in intellectual property consciousness and anxiety on the part of all kinds of users."
Mr. Jaszi is an author, with Patricia Aufderheide, the director of American University's Center for Social Media, of a report titled "Untold Stories: Creative Consequences of the Rights Clearance Culture for Documentary Filmmakers," for which 45 filmmakers were interviewed. Among the more striking examples he cites is "Eyes on the Prize," the series on the civil rights movement. Henry Louis Gates Jr., chairman of the department of African and African-American studies at Harvard, has called "Eyes" "the most sophisticated and most poignant documentary of African-American history ever made." But it was last broadcast in 1993, and while schools or libraries may have a copy, it is not legally available for sale or rent on DVD or video.
"There's a whole generation out there who have not seen the program," said Sandy Forman, an entertainment lawyer heading a project to reclear the rights so that "Eyes" can be rebroadcast and distributed to the educational market. "When the rights were originally cleared, they were acquired for different terms. Some were in perpetuity, some were for 3 years, some for 7, some for 10." Once just one group of rights expired - and there are 272 still photographs and 492 minutes of scenes from more than 80 archives, plus the music - "we had to pull the film from distribution." ...
"It's not clear that anyone could even make 'Eyes on the Prize' today because of rights clearances," Mr. Jaszi said. "What's really important here is that documentary commitment to telling the truth is being compromised by the need to accommodate perceived intellectual and copyright constraints." [Emphasis added.]

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