March 8, 2010

‘The Cove’: Will movies usher in a new era of social change?

Moving movie audiences to take action from JD Lasica on Vimeo.

JD LasicaI‘ll confess: I was excited to see The Cove take home the Academy Award for best feature documentary last night. While all the entrants were worthy, “The Cove” is among the handful of movies pushing the idea of Hollywood productions as the fulcrum for social change.

A few weeks ago I caught up with Christopher Gebhardt, general manager and executive vice president of TakePart, the Beverly Hills-based digital arm of Participant Media, which marketed and helped bring “The Cove” to theaters nationwide. Participant Media (formerly Participant Productions) — Jeff Skoll’s social entrepreneurial film production company — has an incredible track record in bringing socially relevant films to screens nationwide, including “An Inconvenient Truth,” “Charlie Wilson’s War,” “The Kite Runner,” “The Soloist,” “Syriana,” “Good Night, and Good Luck,” “The Visitor,” “Food, Inc.,” “North Country” and now “The Cove.”

A breath-taking string of success.

dolphins“The Cove” is remarkable for its guerrilla filmmaking tactics in chronicling the grisly business of dolphin hunting in rural fishing villages in Japan, where as many as 20,000 dolphins are slaughtered annually. It won the Audience Award at Sundance last year. Participant didn’t fund the film but funded its marketing.

“We’ve spent the last five years at Participant figuring out how to take the film and really use it to … really get people involved with an issue,” said Gebhardt, speaking after a conversation on stage at Social Capital Markets 2009.

You may have noticed one fellow on stage at the Oscars — film subject and animal activist Ric O’Barry — holding up a sign that said, “Text DOLPHIN to 44144.” (The camera cut away after only one second — the academy has a long tradition of not acknowledging or encouraging overly activist sentiments.)

What’s cool about “The Cove” is that, just as the movie ends, theatergoers are met with the same message: Text DOLPHIN to 44144. When you text the short code, Gebhardt explains, you’re given ways to connect, including the option to sign online petitions to protest the brutal practice, send letters to President Obama, the US ambassador to Japan or Japan’s ambassador to the United States, or you can take other actions.

Watch, download or embed the video on Vimeo. (I’ve started producing these in a higher resolution 3800 kbps bitrate at 720 pixels wide.)

I should mention that I was in the first group of bloggers in 2005 who signed on to guest-post on Participant’s first such effort: the “Good Night and Good Luck” site to discuss press reform and how changes in corporate ownership of the media have affected our democracy since the days of Edward R. Murrow. Continue reading

April 27, 2009

What is off-limits to a documentary filmmaker?

Fair use and ‘free use’: As a documentary filmmaker, when must I turn off my camera?

Guest post by Peter Jaszi
Professor of Law, Washington College of Law, American University

The answers to some of filmmakers’ most common clearance questions don’t really lie in the realm of “fair use” at all, but fall under the heading of “free use.” Some examples:

  • Buildings that can be seen from public areas can be filmed for any purpose. Although there has been copyright in architectural works in the United States since 1990, the U.S. Copyright Act includes an exemption for filming. It doesn’t matter whether the building is the subject of the film or an incidental background.
  • Federal government works enjoy no copyright protection whatsoever, whether they are the words of federal government employees or footage taken by camerapeople in civilian or military service. The purpose for which you use the material – as well as the source from which you obtain it – are irrelevant from a copyright perspective.
  • Public domain works (such as 19th century paintings or medieval manuscripts) in museums or private collections are free for use as well, if you have access to a reproduction. Many institutions claim copyright in their own photographs of old objects in their collections. But if you have a different source, you’re free to proceed, without a license from the collection.
  • For most documentary projects, filmmakers don’t have to be concerned about the so-called “right of publicity” that exists under some state laws. The cases (and sometimes the statutes themselves) make it clear that the right bars only the commercial exploitation of celebrities’ “persona,” and First Amendment-protected expressive uses are specifically exempted.
  • In answer to a common (but not intellectual property-related) question, documentarians don’t need photo releases from individuals who are filmed in parks, streets or other public places where they have no expectation of privacy. If you single out an individual for special attention, you may a need a release.
Peter Jaszi is professor of law and faculty director of the Glushko-Samuelson Intellectual Property Clinic at Washington College of Law, American University. This article originally appeared at American University’s Center for Social Media and is published under a Creative Commons license.. It is available in PDF form.
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