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Cash Prize

I have mixed feelings about the news that enough donations have been made to clear all of the music and images from the embattled civil rights documentary Eyes on the Prize. Kudos to the Ford Foundation and Richard Gilder for caring, but for every prize-winning, connected documentarian out there, a thousand others are trying to do important (if obscure) work.

When you consider the bigger picture, Ford's funding of Eyes is actually part of the problem. Rather than challenging a copyright system that shackles documentarians, Ford and the other Eyes backers opted to feed it. With the funding securred, Eyes can now be used to show that the system works.

As with Mad Hot Ballroom, the number of clearances that the documentarians must obtain is insane. It is a shame that anyone is enforcing the terms of the original limited-time licenses. It is a pity that the ransom will apparently be paid. Eyes is the exception, not the rule; it was able to raise money because it has proven itself historically. Under the current system, the majority of films won't be given the same chance.

Posted by Charles Star on 08/31/2005 | Permalink


I thought that Mad Hot Ballroom story was just another way of not challenging the real problem -- that it was a perfect example of how copyright tyranny limits documentarians' creative possibilities, but that it also skirts the problem. But I am of the opinion that a fairly organized campaign of "civil disobedience", as done with e.g. Outfoxed, is the only effective way to challenge it. And in this, it is the important obscure people who have the upper hand over more established filmmakers, who are constrained by broadcasters, distributors, funders and other people who have been frightened into submission.

The Center for Social Media, the ones behind the Untold Stories report linked on the Mad Hot Ballroom page, is working on a statement of "Best Practices" for use of copyrighted materials by doc makers. From what CSM has said and done so far it sounds like it will lead to a far nicer production environment than the dystopia of the MHB story.

Posted by: Orion | Sep 1, 2005 12:10:39 AM

When I worked on acquiring the music for my documentary, I ended up using about 90 percent Creative Commons licensed music (and hence my own documentary was Creative Commons Licensed, Attribution-Sharealike 2.0).

It would be very hard to convince me that there is music a film "needs" that can't be replaced with another alternative.

I should write about this in more detail, but the fact is there's two kind of copyright issues that people keep combining into one: incidental, unintended copyrighted material that shows up on frame or in the background (think "Staind" is playing on a radio in the other room while the subject is mentioning their time in school) and intentional (person runs up some stairs and the "Rocky" theme plays). People keep trying to talk about both as if they're the same issue, but they're really not. In one case, it's a part of the environment, possibly under fair use, and the second, you are without a doubt using the music to set up your own little story, borrowing off the power and cultural effect of the original.

In the case of the Eyes on the Prize, if they go out of their way to embarass/publicize how expensive it was to get the story of the Civil Rights struggle out to people because of greed, that could work well....

Posted by: Jason Scott | Sep 1, 2005 3:32:24 AM

It would be very hard to convince me that there is music a film "needs" that can't be replaced with another alternative.

Much as I love Creative Commons, all the CC-licensed work in the world can't substitute for historical footage and sounds. If I wanted to do a documentary on, I dunno, the life of Sophie Tucker, I'm hamstrung unless I can come up with hundreds of thousands of dollars to clear materials buried in various basements and archives.

Posted by: carrie | Sep 1, 2005 12:03:11 PM

No, and that's true... my issue is that that very real issue is often being wrapped up with the same issue of being able to use corporate-owned musical and visual material, specifically for sale.

I think divide and conquer is a much more effective way to fight, and in the case of historical images and material, there's some fair use or other such arguments (or maybe a standardized fee, etc) that could be employed that would otherwise be muddled up with "but then you're saying anyone can just use Creed music!?" and so on.

Now, in the case of Eyes, it is especially galling to me because they in fact HAD all the rights to all these images and footage, and ultimately, since they created it to be a disposable piece of work, with a lifespan of commercial usefulness, they are now taking it in the butt trying to gather back what they had in the first place. Not to be crass in the face of an important subject, but this was a case of a solved problem, which lack of forethought has caused to happen.

Posted by: Jason Scott | Sep 1, 2005 1:38:37 PM

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