What You Need to Know about Copyright
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.