The Film Business

What You Need to Know about Copyright

usage rights

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When you use samples of video in your movie, or use a story you saw in the newspaper, or quote a lengthy piece from a book, you might run up against the law, by breaking copyright. Copyright is a way of protecting you, not just the stuff you want to sample or use.

Copyright is about limited ownership. That means the law tries to be sensible about what you can use—it doesn’t want to get in the way of new culture, so you can use stuff in certain ways and certain terms.

Acceptable/fair usage: you don’t need to tell the copyright holder if what you take is a fair amount. This is called fair use. Look online for The Berne Convention to tell you more—that’s the body that sorts out global copyright agreements. If in doubt about how much you can use, check it out.

How much is OK to use? If you sample a clip, or music or written work, you can use enough to make your point and no more. It must be credited. If in doubt, ask the copyright holder.

If you are a student or nonprofit group like a charity, the same rules apply to you.

Well-known music is hugely expensive to use in movies. Don’t even try. Better to make a deal with local bands where it might help the band to get exposure in your movie.

Who owns someone’s story? Be careful when using a real-life story you read about, like a family who met aliens, or an accountant who became a wrestler. They still own that story, and if they don’t then it most likely belongs to the journalist who wrote about it.

The web is affecting copyright. Lawyers will still freak out if you use music or clips without asking, but there’s no doubt it is shifting. Due to Bit Torrent, the idea of ownership is evolving into the idea that copyright is about “managing exposure.” Hollywood writers saw this coming when they got rights over downloaded clips of their TV work online.

Anything in its original form that was produced before 1922 is OK to use free of charge.

Copyright of your own work. You get copyright automatically once you put your name on it. But you need to prove it was made when you said it was—before someone else’s idea who ripped you off. To do this, simply email the script to yourself and store the email. Or use script registration services—although there is a fee associated with this protection.

Watch out if you make a movie in film school, on any sort of program. In many schools you have given up copyright and they actually own your movie. Specifically demand that the copyright stays with you, but that you grant the school certain limited rights to use it in promotional material, for a specific length of time, after which the agreement lapses and it reverts wholly to you—try it and they’ll think you’re the next Harvey Weinstein.

Excerpted from Stand-Out Shorts: Shooting and Sharing Your Films Online by Russell Evans, © 2010 Elsevier Inc. All rights Reserved.

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   Nate Talbot said on December 5, 2011 at 10:24 pm

Much of this information is false and will get you in trouble if you try. For example, you can use absolutely ZERO of someone else’s work without their permission. Fair use DOES NOT mean you can use a reasonable amount. Basically, if you are not a school, news organization, or the gov’t, fair use probably doesn’t apply to you.
Second, mailing a copy of your work to yourself has NEVER worked as a means of copyright in the US, and the only way a court will hear your case is if you have properly filed with the library of congress.

Any content creator (music artist, visual artist, writer) should be VERY clear on the basics of copyright when it comes to using others works and protecting your own. When in doubt, hire an Intelectual Property attorney, or at least do some vigilant research using legitimate sources ( is a GREAT start).

   B.J. Ahlen said on December 7, 2011 at 8:14 am

“…the only way a court will hear your case is if you have properly filed with the library of congress.”

This is not correct. Copyright theft is specifically prosecutable in court whether you filed with the LOC or not.

There is a major advantage to doing so however: with the filing in hand, you can get an injunction that stops someone’s distribution of infringing materials (unless they have a filing for it that predates yours).

If you don’t file, you can still prosecute, but by the time you collect your royalties 7-10 years later (or possibly longer if the court system get hollowed out more by anti-tax fanatics), your thief may have already made his millions and blown the money, leaving nothing for you to collect. is a great intro for no-budget production, but if there is money involved: get a lawyer who specializes in entertainment law, as it may not be sufficient to have a “copyright lawyer”/”IPR lawyer”/etc.

   AKP said on December 12, 2011 at 3:37 am

As others have pointed out, much of this is quite inaccurate, or misleading especially the fair use section. The Berne Convention may be of academic interest but won’t keep you from getting sued here in the United States, nor does it provide any applicable guidelines about fair use in the US.

I’m quite surprised this website and Elsevier published such inaccuracies that, if followed, could get people in trouble.

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