Thursday, April 20, 2006

Boyle in the FT: Supersize my rights

James Boyle has a quietly passionate piece in the FT about the need to inject some degree of reason into the documentary film sphere, given the barriers thrown up by the genre's "clearance culture."

"Ironically, the problem here is not a broadening of the rights themselves, but a “clearance culture” that demands licenses for the tiniest fragment of copyrighted material caught in the viewfinder or on the soundtrack of the documentary film. Imagine trying to sanitize your film of every song being played on a radio, every fleeting background shot of a copyrighted film or TV program. Imagine you are filming some kids, and one their cell phones rings, playing a copyrighted ring tone. That happened to Amy Sewell; the phone played the “Rocky” theme tune. The owners of the rights asked for $10,000 to clear it. Or imagine you need to refer to the cultural material of the time to tell your story; Eyes on the Prize, the great documentary on the American civil rights movement, was pulled from the shelves for several years because the painstakingly acquired licenses to the innumerable snippets of music, photos and news film needed to tell the story had all expired...

Ironically, the biggest injury here may be to copyright itself. An entire generation of young film-makers now see it as nothing but an impediment, a source of hassles, ludicrous demands from clearances, and mind-numbing cease and desist letters. Yet that is not true. The reality they see has little to do with the law and everything to do with a culture of fear and misinformation...

Two years ago at Full Frame, one of America’s leading documentary film festivals, a group of filmmakers challenged my colleagues and me to decode this reality in a way that human beings as well as lawyers could understand. When the Festival was held again this year, we returned with our answer – a comic book. (One reader noted that “law professors write comic book” sounds like the kind of joke that begins “The Pope, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Godel walk into a bar…”) Writing it was a strange activity, and I fear the Dean has been given new reason to wonder about my mental health. But documentary film is a vital part of our culture and the people who will shape its future do not have lawyers, or read law review articles. It would be tragic if a pattern of ludicrous and legally ungrounded predatory behaviour stopped my kids from seeing their culture fully reflected in the documentaries to come, the ones that will change the way they see the world. Or perhaps even making those documentaries themselves."

I highly recommend the comic James refers to but unfortunately it doesn't appear to be available in the UK yet.

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