Friday, December 30, 2005

Documentary Filmmakers Adopt Position on Fair Use

A broad coalition of groups influential in documentary filmmaking have come together to issue a joint statement as to what they consider acceptable practices when applying the Fair Use Doctrine to documentary films.

The Statement was authored by the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers; Independent Feature Project; International Documentary Association; National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture; and Women in Film and Video (Washington, D.C., chapter).

This important Statement will likely be considered by courts in resolving fair use disputes. It can be downloaded for free from the Center for Social Media

Many writers and filmmakers are confused about the fair use doctrine and whether they need permission to borrow from copyrighted works. Documentary filmmakers are often uncertain whether they can borrow, and how much they can borrow, to incorporate in their film without a license. Obviously, a filmmaker preparing an expose or even taking a critical look at a subject cannot expect the subject to grant them a license. Robert Greenwald is not going to get, nor did he even bother to ask, for permission from the Fox Network for inclusion of their television footage in his film “Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism.”

If the fair use doctrine applies, no license is needed to borrow from a copyrighted work. It gives the public a limited right to draw upon copyrighted works to produce separate works of authorship. Such uses include fair comment and criticism, parody, news reporting, teaching, scholarship and research. Thus, a movie or literary critic does not need permission to include a small quote from a work being reviewed. It is sometimes said of writers that if you borrow extensively from one author’s work, you are a thief; but if you borrow from hundreds, you are a scholar. Of course, the scholar adds value by synthesizing information from prior works and creating something new.

The Statement addresses common situations faced by filmmakers such as when can they quote works of popular culture without permission, and when will an incidental use of background music or visuals on a television set be considered a fair use.

In determining whether the use of a copyrighted work is fair use, courts weigh four factors:

1) The purpose and character of the work: A non-profit educational use is more likely to be considered a fair use than a commercial use. A commercial use is one that earns a profit.

2) The nature of the copyrighted work: There is greater public interest in allowing borrowing for scientific, biographical and historical works than for entertainment works.

3) The amount and substantiality of the portion borrowed in relation to copyrighted work as a whole: Taking one sentence from a five hundred page book is more likely to be considered a fair use than taking a sentence from a ten line poem.

4) The potential adverse effect on the market for, and value of, the copyrighted work: If borrowing from the copyrighted work harms the market for it, the use is less likely to be considered a fair use. Borrowing a sentence from a novel and incorporating it in another, completely different kind of work, such as a scholarly work, is unlikely to have any effect on sales of the novel. Likewise, borrowing from a book that is out of print is not likely to have an adverse impact on its sales.

In applying these factors to a specific factual situation, it can often be difficult to predict whether a use will fall within the doctrine. Generally speaking, a greater amount of material may be borrowed from non-fiction works than from fictional works. Clearly, a writer can borrow histori¬cal facts from a previous work without infringing upon the first author’s copyright, because of both the fair use doctrine and because historical facts are not copyrightable. Moreover, since factual works, unlike works of fiction, may be capable of being expressed in relatively few ways, only verbatim reproduction or close paraphrasing will be an infringement.

Writers should be more cautious in borrowing from novels and other fictional works. In one case, the author of the book “Welcome to Twin Peaks: A Complete Guide to Who’s Who and What’s What,” was found to have infringed the television series “Twin Peaks.” The book contained detailed plot summaries and extensive direct quotations of at least eighty-nine lines of dialogue.

One encounters a lot of grey areas in applying the fair use doctrine. It is safe to say that a schoolteacher will be protected if she photocopies a Newsweek article and distributes it to her class on one occasion. If the schoolteacher, however, photocopies an entire textbook and distributes it to her students in order to save them the expense of purchasing their own texts, this would not be a fair use. But there are many factual situations that lie between these two extremes; and in those cases it can be difficult to predict whether the fair use doctrine will be a good defense.