POSTS The Film Business

Copyright 101 for Your Video Project

Photo by Horia Varlan

If you expect your video project to really be yours after completion, make sure that all the material you use has been created by you or by people who are working for you. If you or one of your coworkers uses material owned by others, you may find yourself spending time with lawyers instead of looking for more video projects to produce.

Using other people’s material without their permission is a copyright infringement; if you are caught doing it, you have created a legal problem for yourself. The problem arises very often when copyrighted music is used without permission. Four simple approaches will help you avoid this problem:

  • If you need music for your program and the music you choose is copyrighted, contact the copyright holder (the record company, music publishing company, or individual artist) in writing and ask for permission to use the material. In your request, be as specific as you can as to your intentions. Name the material, the excerpt (if appropriate), the program it will be used in, the distribution or exhibition plans, and any other relevant information. If you do this far enough in advance of your postproduction time, you may get an approval for use of the materials (referred to in the publishing business as “clearance”).
  • Use material that is in the public domain—material that has never been copyrighted or material of which the copyright has expired. Material that has not been copyrighted is probably available from your local amateur composer or music student. They may have excellent material already composed or may be able to compose music tailor-made for your project. Material composed long ago, such as old folk tunes (“I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad” or “Oh, Susanna”) or classical music that could be performed especially for your project, is generally available for use, since the copyright has long since expired. (Bach and Beethoven are rarely offended when you use their material.)
  • Purchase the material or subscribe to a library service that provides music or other material such as sound effects. These services work in two ways. One way allows you to use the material as often as you need to use it; you buy this privilege when paying for the material, and its use is at your discretion. A second type of service involves a needle-drop fee.  Music library services provide you with the material, but you must pay when you use it. This term comes from the practice of being charged for using the material when your phonographic needle “drops” on the record (vinyl LPs) for actual use in a production.
  • Hire a musician or musical group that will use original compositions and perform them for you. Once you pay for this service, you should own the right to use the material. Another consideration is that you have permission to use the images of people who appear on camera in your project. This can be accomplished by having those people sign a Model Release, in which they give specific permission for you to use their image in your project or program.

Excerpt from Portable Video: News and Field Production, 6e by Norman Medoff and Edward Fink © 2012 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.

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