Copyright law is federal law and does not vary from state to state. It protects your video and every individual piece of that video. The protection occurs automatically and immediately when the video is fixed in a tangible medium. Once you’ve created your video, only you, the copyright owner, can give permission to others to copy the video, to distribute copies of the video by sale, rent, lease, or other transfer of ownership, to prepare derivative works based upon the video or its contents, or to perform (i.e., show) the video publicly.

Copyright Infringement

Infringement occurs when someone uses work that is protected by copyright laws without the creator’s permission and, if you’re found liable for copyright infringement, you may face damages of up to $150,000. The penalty is greater if the court finds the infringement willful. Do not use other creators’ work unless you have their permission. Merely because it is ever easier to copy the works of others, via computers, tape recorders, VCRs, photocopiers and the Internet, for example, doesn’t make it lawful to do so.


It will do more harm to not have a signed photo release when you need one, than to have one that you do not need. Always have anyone appearing on camera in your video sign a release form prior to shooting. The release form will protect you against legal issues and gives you permission to use the video of the person for commercial and non-commercial purposes. A release is not needed if a person is part of a crowd recorded in a public place, as long as the person is not a focus of the video.

Recording Location

Generally, you have the right to video at or from public places such as public streets, parks, and public events. However, your subjects also have privacy rights. You do not have the right to record at or from private places such as someone’s home or business, without a signed release.

Legal Audio

Sound is a very important piece of any video, and with today’s technology and the availability of audio on the Internet, it is very tempting to search for and use clips, music, or sound effects that you can find on the web. However, it is also very easy to infringe on someone else’s copyright rights by doing so. If you cannot create your own audio, such as music and sound effects, you can hire someone to create it for you. If you use audio that you have not created, you must obtain a license to use the audio prior to incorporating it into your video. Another option is to use buyout music, which requires a one-time fee for unlimited use.

Stills and Images

If you use stills or images in your video, create them yourself. If you use video clips or photos that have been created by others, you should obtain permission from the owner and also obtain permission from anyone contributing to the work, such as actors.

Fair Use

Some works are covered under the Fair Use provision of the Copyright Law, which is a set of guidelines used to determine if a work can be used without permission. Examples of fair use are works used for news reporting, criticism, comment, scientific research, teaching, and parody. Be aware that if the copyright owner disagrees with your use, you may be facing a lawsuit and damages.

Copyright Notice

Be sure to place a copyright notice on your video: © Your Name 2013. This gives notice to the public that you own your video. The notice should be seen at or close to the beginning of the video or at the end. You should also include the notice on DVD labels or packaging that contains your video.


Register your final work in the U.S. Copyright Office ( if you believe it is valuable and likely to be copied without your permission. Registration is a simple and relatively inexpensive process.

Duration of a Copyright

The term of copyright depends on several things, such as when it was created, the creator’s date of death, whether it has been published, and the date of first publication. For your works created after January 1, 1978, copyright protection lasts for your life plus an additional 70 years. If the work is anonymous, the term is the shorter of 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation. To determine the duration of copyright protection for a particular work, see chapter 3 of the Copyright Act (title 17 of the United States Code).

The last thing that you need to worry about while creating a video is copyright infringement and the penalties associated with it. Avoid all of the legal issues by having releases ready to be signed before recording any video, audio or still photos, and by buying, obtaining permission to use, or creating your own pieces to use in the video (images, sound effects, music, etc.). When your video is finished, protect your creation by using a copyright notice and registering your work with the U.S. Copyright Office. It is easier to deal with the legal issues prior to video recording than to face the legal issues after you’ve done all of the work.

Amy Manzer is a paralegal at Hinman, Howard & Kattell concentrating in intellectual property rights. Attorney Mark Levy specializes in intellectual property law.