Creative Counsel: Working with Documentaries
Your Questions Answered!
Write in with your questions about the confusing legalities in the world of music or filmmaking, and make informed, professional decisions that affect your creative work. Manojna Yeluri, Founder of Artistik License, clears the fog with her regular column on the questions you ask, to get the answers that you need.
Artistik License is a legal education and services platform dedicated to addressing the needs and queries of artists and creative entrepreneurs in India.
Shooting a documentary will require your meeting a number of people – sometimes you’ve planned for this meeting ahead of time, and sometimes you take a creative decision to include the person’s story in the documentary you’re trying to make. Either way, as a responsible filmmaker and content creator you are required to procure signed releases or consent forms from all the people you film or record. If you intend to have the documentary screened in theatres or at film festivals, you need to have your paper work together and this starts with organising your model or subject release forms. A quick tip is to keep your forms ready and then get them signed immediately after you get your shot – this way you can avoid running around later, chasing your subjects for their consent. You can find model release forms all over the internet although it is always wise to have a lawyer look over them or actually draft one that specifically addresses your project and its inherent concerns.
It is just as important to ensure that you have the requisite permissions and releases with respect to the locations you want to film in. This requires some background research. If you are choosing to film in a public space, you will require the permissions of the local town or city corporation as well as the written support of the local law enforcement agencies i.e the local police. Some tourist spots might have added restrictions and it is always best to check on the spaces you want to film in, prior to scheduling the shoot and booking your equipment. Getting permission can also be difficult depending on the place and the content of your film. If you choose to film in a private space, ensure that you have the permission of the inhabitants of that space – don’t assume that because it’s your friend’s place you ought to ignore procuring a written location release form them. It’s always good to have simple, but clear documentation regarding all the places, people and content you plan on incorporating into your work.
Using music as a part of documentaries is common but can also be expensive. If you choose to incorporate a segment of a sound recording that is a recorded piece of music, into your film then ensure that you have the permission to do so. This might require communications with the authors of the musical work and the copyright owners of the sound recording in order to negotiate synchronisation licenses. Unfortunately, negotiating music licenses can be a huge expense and a good way to avoid the astronomical expenses is to use original content that has been created specifically for your documentary. This way, you might also contribute to the creation of original content while strengthening the independent music scene. Either way, always remember that you do need permissions before incorporating any one else’s music into your documentary. Even if you are making a documentary about musicians and you want to incorporate their music, make sure that you do so only after obtaining their explicit permission to do so.
Documentaries are meant to be honest and realistic, however this doesn’t mean that there is a blanket excuse to ignore various intellectual property rights belonging to other people, brands, companies and content creators. Almost everything we use, listen to or watch carries a trademark or copyright and this poses problems, especially for documentary filmmakers who need to acquire permissions without breaking the bank. This is why it is important to clear your film of unauthorised content usage, prior to exhibiting it to anyone else. This needs to be done carefully because the current legal system requires you to take permission even if you’re including a subject’s mobile ringtone that might be a famous song or if you’re filming a scene that has a television screen in the background, containing unclear extracts of a popular sitcom or series. A great way to understand this phenomenon is by reading this extract from the work of Lawrence Lessig who talks about Jon Else and the problems he faced with the Fox network due to a four-second clip of the Simpsons that was accidentally featured in his work. The same warnings apply to featuring products with protected trademarks – for instance, blurring out the Apple logo on the back of Macbook screen. So ensure you’re taking all the precautions you can to avoid being sued for something seemingly trivial.
Shooting documentaries and films in a different country requires a separate set of permissions. Similarly, if you’re a foreign national looking to make a documentary film in India, you need to follow a certain set of procedures. You are required to provide an undertaking accompanied by other documentation stating the purpose of your documentary, a basic synopsis and information like location releases and so on. Here’s an overview of the information you will be required to provide.
If you are planning on shooting a documentary on an issue that is controversial and problematic in some way, then please ensure that you are aware of the legal implications. While the Constitution of India guarantees the right freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a), please note that this right is subject to reasonable restrictions and so this means that you cannot assume that free speech and expression is an absolute right. In no way should this discourage you from making honest films, but what it does require is that you are informed of your rights and are capable of making the right decisions to protect your work and yourself.
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