Video Out: Read Me My Rights!

Part of your American freedom, according to the U.S. Constitution, is exclusive rights to your original works as a videographer. Even if those works appear in cyberspace.

When you create a piece of intellectual property, you are entitled to have it protected from unauthorized copying or use. When that property is video, in particular video intended for viewing on the Internet, protecting your rights can be difficult, especially if you are uncertain what those right are.

In the wake of Napster and the debate over Internet media, digital rights and Internet legal standards are still being debated and defined. While attorneys battle it out in the courts and everyone else debates these issues on the Internet, you still need the best advice for protecting your work. Regardless of the outcome of these complex issues, you can still take some simple steps to protect your property and your rights.

Back to Basics

All intellectual property is subject to federal copyright laws, covered in Title 17 of the U.S. Code, and guaranteed in the Constitution (see the Constitutional Guarantee sidebar).

Copyright laws in the U.S. are as old as the country itself; indeed many of the concepts, like many of our laws, come from English common law. Obviously, these legal concepts and standards were developed prior to the development of the Internet, and more importantly, prior to the development of digital media and the ability to make perfect copies, identical to the original. The ability to determine when a copy is a copy has been an important part of the law regarding intellectual property.

Works created on or after January 1, 1978 (as we suspect all your media is) have copyright protection that last for the duration of your life, plus 70 years. During this time, no one has the right to copy or display your work without your permission, but how do you ensure that this legal protection extends into the practical world?

Remind Your Audience

The first step to compelling people to respect your rights is simply reminding them that they exist. There is such a barrage of media available on the Internet, it is easy to forget that every separate piece has a creator. Simply including a prominent copyright notice can be an effective means of reducing piracy. Most people don’t want to rip you off, they simply don’t think about the value that your property has. A notice of copyright, and adding instructions for those who would like to license your property, is a good first defense.

For video presentations on the Web, include a simple copyright notice at the beginning of your program and a notice of how to obtain licensing at the end. The simple notice at the beginning might be nothing more than a 15-second graphic: "2001 Jane Doe." The licensing instructions screen at the end is essentially a "contact me" screen, offering your name and address. Remember that whenever you give people permission to use your program, you are giving them a license a temporary, specific permission. You need never give away all your rights, merely temporarily loan them.

Preventing (or Controlling) Copies

Certainly, there will be people who ignore your copyright notices, and will therefore ignore your rights. To protect your rights against these people, you will have to do more than just announce your right to protect your property. With digital media, a copy is not only "just as good" as the original, the copy is indistinguishable from that original. How do you protect yourself in this brave new world?

One way is to limit access to quality. In other words, allow anonymous, public access to a limited-quality version of your work, perhaps a limited-size streaming version of your video. Don’t place full-size, full-resolution, full-frame-rate copies where people can copy and steal them.

If you need to have those full-quality copies publicly available, another way to help protect your rights is to "watermark" your program. Digital watermarking is a means of placing an encrypted "signature" transparently on your work, so that if someone uses it, or a portion of it, without your permission, you can prove you own it. While this may seem a bit of a case of shutting the barn door after the horse is already out, it is a remarkably effective tool for prosecuting those who would steal your work and your rights. For a long time, police agencies have told us to etch identifying numbers onto our valuables, to aid in identification if recovered after their being stolen. But watermarking, while being the digital equivalent of such etching, also goes a step further; it can tell you where on the Web your work is appearing. This sort of tracking is analogous to a stolen car tracking system, and as such, it is a service with an ongoing cost.

Determining the Right Protection Level for You

Everyone has different needs when it comes to protecting intellectual property rights. George Lucas may have to take extraordinary measures to protect his works against unauthorized copying or use. Your needs however, are probably a bit simpler, and you may not need the same level of protection for each of your projects.

When trying to determine how far to go to protect your intellectual property rights, you will need to answer three questions about a particular work:

  •   What is its market value?
  •   What is the value of its individual components?
  •   What is the appeal of the entire piece?

    Determining market value can be difficult, because, as the creator of the piece, it may be near to your heart. Basically, the market value of your project is the amount someone would pay for it. That doesn’t mean what you, yourself would pay, but what you could expect some random person to pay.

    Determining the value of the components of your work is important, since that image of the San Francisco Bay in your work may be just attractive enough for someone to use in his own video, even though the entire project may not get copied. Look through your program and find the most attractive shots or the best original component. What are each of these things worth?

    Finally, how broad is your program’s appeal? Factor in the breadth of the appeal, along with the value of your program and its components when determining how much effort and expense to put into protecting your project. A valuable program with limited appeal may be about equal in overall protection-needing to a program of lesser value that has broad appeal.

    Whatever the Future May Bring

    Without being able to predict specifics of technological change or altering legal landscapes, it is safe to say that the future will certainly bring more creativity, and more creative ways of pirating the products of that creativity. The only sure thing for the future of intellectual property rights and media is that we will always have them and always have debates about them; the key for us is to simply try to stay on top of our rights. They are fundamental to our civil liberties.

    Web Hosts: The Fine PrintBefore you post your video on a Web site that hosts videos created by independent producers, read the submission agreements very carefully; one of the ways you can most quickly lose your rights is to give them away. Some sites ask you to license them some pretty broad rights to your work, even though they do leave you in control as the copyright owner. iFilm, one of the biggest online movie sites, does not ask you to license any rights to them, other than those necessary to present your program. But they only select a few for complimentary "premium benefits;" if you are not lucky enough to be selected, you must pay to have your program shown. Of course, the purely "for pay" sites do not require you to grant them any rights, but if you want to get your video out there for free, then you may have to license the host some rights to your work. If you do, be sure to read the agreement closely, and don’t grant any rights that you don’t feel comfortable giving away.

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