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J.B. Zimmerman at Sharp Tools, a member of the family that owns the Blackside copyright in Eyes on the Prize, points out that there is more to the Eyes on the Prize/Eyes on the Screen campaign than making a documentary film the centerpiece of a campaign to expose the excesses of the copyright system.

Blackside is two of Henry’s sisters, one retired and one nearly so. . . . Blackside itself is a set of legal documents and a telephone line, these days – because my mother and my aunt aren’t filmmakers, and the real purpose of Blackside (as told me by Henry) wasn’t even really to make films; it was to train young black filmmakers in a time when there weren’t really that many of them out there.

He (and others with him) did that. Many of them went on out into the world to make films, and tell the Black Side of things. That made him proud. At that, Blackside served its purpose. That, and it allowed Henry to make movies – movies he’d wanted to make all his life.

Fair enough, and so far so good. And:

Anyway, now, suddenly, the bloggers are fighting Big Media, the copyright system, what have you, but they’re doing it using my family’s property as cannon fodder.

This is where things get murky, and it’s where the argument really does turn out to be about copyright law, not just about fairness to Henry Hampton and his family. The argument for Eyes on the Screen (the campaign) starts from the premise that the copyright to the film may be owned by Blackside, but the real value of the film is the history, not the film. The history isn’t owned by anyone. Moreover, it isn’t just Blackside’s copyright that’s at issue; re-releasing Eyes on the Prize is complex, and the Eyes on the Screen campaign is arguably appropriate, because of copyright clearance issues that have to be resolved for material that the film borrowed from other sources. No one is necessarily a bad guy here. There are just an awful lot of people with irons in the copyright fire.

Here’s the tie to the basic copyright question: Is protecting these copyrights, including Blackside’s, the best way to ensure that the history is widely known? Or is commonsizing the film — long after it was first broadcast and distributed, and long after Henry Hampton’s place in film history was assurred — a better way to share that history?

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