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Documentary Tip: Copyright Law and the Public Domain

Documentary Tip: Copyright Law and the Public Domain
In the field of documentary it's not uncommon to have to use copyrighted works such as photographs, music, historical footage and artwork. Copyright laws can spell serious problems for your documentary if not followed properly. Many amateur documentarians will simply turn a blind eye to copyright laws which results in legal consequences if they sell or show their documentary to anyone (this includes posting to YouTube and/or other video-sharing sites). Other documentarians will claim the copyrighted item falls under fair use. However, the fair use exception isn't always as black and white as one would hope. One way to avoid copyright legalities altogether is to use material that is in the public domain. The public domain is a collection of work that isn't owned by anyone, therefore free to use by everyone and without requiring special permission. In the United States, there are many different factors that determine when a copyrighted work enters the public domain:
  • Anything published before 1923 is in the public domain.
  • If the work was published between 1923 and 1963 without a copyright notice it is now in the public domain.
  • If the work was published between 1923 and 1963 with a copyright notice, but the copyright was never renewed, it is in the public domain.
  • If the creator decides not to obtain copyright, but rather contribute a work specifically for the public domain.
Anything published before 1923 is safe to use, however, be careful that the work you are using is, indeed, the original work created before 1923. For example, the score to Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite would be in the public domain. But, if you are using a modern recording of the song, it is considered a new work and, therefore, possibly protected under copyright. By adhering to fair use and copyright laws you will be able to avoid legal catastrophes down the road. It may seem like a hassle to track down permission to use copyrighted material or to dig through public domain files in search of something usable, but the extra effort to obtain legal clearance will be well worth it in the end. For more information on Fair Use and Copyright laws check out What's Legal: Producer's Rights Interested in more tips on Documentary Production? Sign up for Videomaker's free Documentary Course. This free tip series is designed to help you improve your video production skills, fast. Learn More.
December 17th, 2010