Copyright and Documentary Film

Frank Field at Furdlog quotes a piece of a Wired News item on the copyright troubles facing documentary film. The excerpt highlights the unavailability of the definitive documentary film on the civil rights movement, Eyes on the Prize. For the complete story, here’s a link to the piece at Wired News.

The big story here isn’t Eyes on the Prize. The big story is the copyright catastrophe that’s confronting documentary film in general, and the audio/visual history of the second half of the 20th century in particular. The hook for Wired’s coverage — and the full telling of that catastrophe — is a report prepared by the Center for Social Media, at American University, in November, titled “Untold Stories: Creative Consequences of the Rights Clearance Culture for Documentary Filmmakers”. The co-authors of the report are Pat Aufderheide (who runs the Center) and Peter Jaszi (the tireless copyright scholar at AU).

I was at a panel at AU in November announcing the release of the report, and the sound bite that I came away with is this: Ever wonder why the History Channel spends so much time showing footage from World War II? Why it doesn’t show more about the Vietnam War? Answer: The old footage is cheap; the new footage is expensive. The WWII footage is largely U.S. government produced, meaning that there are few if any copyright problems (the U.S. government is barred by statute from owning copyrights in material that it creates). Vietnam-era footage is largely shot by private enterprise, which — setting aside the courage of many of the people who shot it — is happy to reap the rewards that the copyright system provides.

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