From life rights to fair use, here’s what you need to know about legal issues before you make your documentary.
Over the course of my career, as both the founder of The Film Collaborative and an attorney in private practice at Early Sullivan, I have noticed a lack of understanding by filmmakers regarding the law and documentary film distribution. I hope to provide some clarity in the following blog post. But keep in mind that this post does not replace legal advice tailored to a specific film, filmmaker and distribution options/deals. Feel free to contact me with specific inquiries (contact info at the end of this post).
1. Life rights
Recently at the Edinburgh Pitch / Film Festival a filmmaker asked me a very interesting question about “life rights.” He asked whether he could prevent a media outlet from covering a story about a person or persons in a way that competed with his forthcoming documentary. He wanted to know if his having life rights to a person’s or persons’ story would make a difference. The short answer is “no;” there really is no legal protection of “life rights.”
“Factual information is not copyrightable.”
A life rights agreement obligates the subject selling his/her life rights to cooperate with the buyer. The subject/seller is committing to helping the buyer obtain information about the subject’s life and releasing the buyer from any claims by the subject against the eventual filmmaker, and ideally also to promoting the project. These agreements, however, cannot stop a third-party from taking an interest in the story facts and covering them.
Factual information is not copyrightable. That is not to say there are no copyright theories to protect a documentary from being overtly copied. But there is no legal way to prevent a third-party from using the same true facts and expressing those facts in another work. So, one might want to keep exposure of the story under wraps, if possible, until the documentary is out, and proceed with making an excellent documentary that demands to be seen and won’t be trumped by news segments or other content.
If this issue is coming up for you and you have a concern about being overtly copied beyond the facts, then you may want to discuss with an attorney. Chances are the other party will not copy too much beyond the non-copyrightable facts for there to be legal recourse. And many jurisdictions are not so copyright-friendly to begin with. This would be especially true for documentaries where the content is non-fiction and akin to journalism.
Andrea Pino “The Hunting Ground”
RADIUS-TWC Andrea Pino “The Hunting Ground”
2. Worldwide rights deals
This issue combines legal and business issues I have encountered as both an executive and an attorney. These days, with platforms such as Netflix providing international opportunities to documentary filmmakers, one should be wary of committing to international sales agents to make the “worldwide” deal. An adept U.S. sales agent or lawyer could procure and handle a great worldwide Netflix or CNN deal. A U.S. agent or lawyer might have a better shot at the worldwide deal, hence it makes sense to exhaust that option before committing to an international sales strategy. This may be of interest because often the U.S. agents’ and lawyers’ commissions and recoupable expenses are sometimes lower than an international sales companies’ (and there is often good reason for that given the breadth of territories and markets to cover on the international front).
In my experience, many American documentaries do not do well overseas and, even when they sell, they sell small. Of course there are exceptions. Point being; evaluate the potential of one big U.S. deal with lower commissions versus using international sales agents, who typically charge more. Have an experienced lawyer or producer help you carve out rights based on these possibilities (if applicable) or perhaps to help you know if and when it is appropriate to bring an international sales agent on board. Being realistic about your film’s potential based on market conditions and appropriate comparisons is critical to effective distribution and the avoidance of mistakes.
3. Educational rights vs. digital distribution
“Do not have your uncle, friend or family attorney who knows nothing about distribution do your legal work for your film.”
At The Film Collaborative we often notice that the more successful a film is via educational distribution and festival/non-theatrical distribution the less successful it is via traditional television and digital distribution. In short, certain less-commercial content is appealing to film festival programmers, universities, museums and other educational/non-theatrical outlets. There are, of course, exceptions to that rule and some documentaries do well across all rights and categories of distribution. These days, educational distribution involves streaming (in addition to digital master exhibition or DVD sales) but for a higher price-point than retail streaming.
Some education institutions are savvy enough not to use commercial retail copies of your film for a classroom or campus exhibition, but some do, without realizing there is a potential legal issue. If your film could do especially well on the festival circuit and through educational distribution, then you might want to delay your regular home entertainment digital and television distribution. It is also true that many film festivals will not show your film if it’s commercially available via consumer-facing platforms such as iTunes and Netflix. Most all-rights distributors do not handle educational rights either at all or as well as certain specializing educational rights distributors. Therefore, you might want to save those rights for a company specializing in “exploiting” them. The key will then be coordinating rights and windows between distributors in any given territory. Note that splitting rights is generally not an option with the majors but it is with many others and I have personally done as many as seven deals in a single territory.
courtesy of Landfill Harmonic “Landfill Harmonic”
4. Rights for the future
“Most deals of the past didn’t anticipate the digital age, including the Internet and streaming.”
Protecting your rights for the future while satisfying the licensee (buyer/distributor) for the term of an ongoing deal can be challenging. Most deals of the past didn’t anticipate the digital age, including the Internet and streaming. There have been scores of legal battles over contracts that didn’t explicitly address digital distribution, causing parties to a deal to fight over digital rights (for example squabbling over what is included in “all technologies now known or hereinafter invented,” home video or “videogram” rights). Another even more common battle would be over whether digital rights falls into the video (VHS and then DVD) royalty or TV/broadcast.
The reason for the fight was, of course, the fact that the royalty to licensor (producers/filmmakers) or distribution percentages to distributor differ based on rights category (classification of rights). I think the degree to which one raises this as an issue should be based on the overall potential of the film in the present and the degree to which it may be evergreen or experience an uptick based on cast name recognition or genre. I like to do deals that are not only rights class/category-oriented (e.g. broadcast rights, theatrical rights), but that are broken down by revenue, and anticipate the future. You may not always have leverage to do this but if you do, it’s worth analyzing so that you do not risk having a category of rights or type of distribution that you once took for granted all of a sudden emerges as very significant and the terms are simply not in your favor and now you are locked in for 20 years. Also, you would have other protections for such a long license term if it cannot be avoided.
Source : Indie Wire, author Orly Ravid, July 23rd, 2015