“The Hidden Cost of Documentaries”

Why can’t you get a DVD of “Eyes on the Prize,” which Henry Louis Gates Jr., chairman of the department of African and African-American studies at Harvard, called “the most sophisticated and most poignant documentary of African-American history ever made”? Because there are 272 still photographs, scenes from eighty archives, and music—and if a single set of rights expire, fear of copyright litigation prevents the entire movie from being shown or distributed. “Today, anyone armed with a video camera and movie-editing software can make a documentary. But can everyone afford to make it legally?” (Nancy Ramsey, New York Times, Oct. 16). American University professors Pat Aufderheide and Peter Jaszi issue an extensive report describing the problem, but draw back from the obvious solution of liability reform, and thus make their recommendations toothless. “Educating gatekeepers about creators’ use rights” will have absolutely no effect so long as it will cost a documentary filmmaker less to pay for rights than to successfully defend a lawsuit against a rights-holder.

Comedian David Cross is learning this: he’s been sued by a nightclub owner who claims that Cross didn’t have permission to record him. Sub Pop Records, which distributed the Cross CD, claims that the permissions were granted.

See also Oct. 10 and links therein.