In recent history, copyright and First Amendment issues seem to have had a relatively clear professional/amateur line drawn. There has been a lot of discussion lately about how the rise of amateur journalists, content creators, music publishers, producers, etc… are blurring that line, where now everybody wants the privileges that were previously reserved to select few “professionals” in particular fields. This is not that debate. This is about the “professional” documentary filmmakers, and their struggle with increasingly rigid copyright protections for archival footage that, if not arguably in the public domain, is at least of valid historical interest.
This is an interesting post on the growing problem of documentary filmmakers who secure limited-duration rights to archival footage, but then face the problem that they can’t legally reproduce or broadcast their films after the rights expire.
The Eyes on the Prize documentary of the American Civil Rights Movement is cited as a classic example:
‘The makers of the series no longer have permission for the archival footage they previously used of such key events as the historic protest marches or the confrontations with Southern police. Given Eyes on the Prize’s tight budget, typical of any documentary, its filmmakers could barely afford the minimum five-year rights for use of the clips. That permission has long since expired, and the $250,000 to $500,000 needed to clear the numerous copyrights involved is proving too expensive.
This is particularly dire now, because VHS copies of the series used in countless school curriculums are deteriorating beyond rehabilitation. With no new copies allowed to go on sale, “the whole thing, for all practical purposes, no longer exists,” says Jon Else, a California-based filmmaker who helped produce and shoot the series and who also teaches at the Graduate School of Journalism of the University of California, Berkeley.’