[Fsf-friends] OFFTOPIC: Shoot, share and create -- looking beyond copyright and film

Frederick Noronha (FN) fred@bytesforall.org
Tue Nov 2 10:41:39 IST 2004

Interesting example of Free Software ideas spreading to film. FN


Young lawyer Lawrence Liang, based in city of Bangalore,
makes an articulate case of why documentary and alternate film makers in
India could do well to think of starting to license their works under an
'open content' license.

By Lawrence Liang lawrenceliang99@yahoo.com

Let's begin with a small personal statement, when I was in law school, I had
great aspirations of wanting to be a film maker , and an FTII-type (Film and
TV Institute of India, a prominent school for film-making) friend told me
that the best place to start was to watch a lot of foreign films and
documentaries. So I did that rather dutifully and spent many hours when I
should have been reading corporate law, watching documentaries.

My fondest memory of my placement in Mumbai with a law firm was when we took
off to the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) and watched Anjali
Monteiro and Jayasankar's film on the Yeravada prison.

Then, I gave up on the idea of becoming a film-maker after we finally did do
a documentary on law school. But by then the bug had bitten and I had fallen
in love with cinema and the documentary form as well. And yeah I think
watching documentaries has also made me a better lawyer than I would have
been if I read Ramiaya on the Indian Companies Act. So if I have written
this rather longish argument about why documentary film makers should start
thinking about open content licenses, it is with a sense of repaying a debt.

But firstly a few clarifications: what does an open content / creative
commons license actually mean?

Open content licenses have basically been inspired by the Free Software
movement, where they try to reverse the principles of copyright to build a
more vibrant public domain of materials which can be used by people.

Copyright grants the author of a work an exclusive right to copy,
distribute, create adaptations etc of his or her work. Any person using any
material without the permission of the author, or without paying royalty, is
presumed to be infringing the exclusive copyright of the author of the work.

While copyright was initially supposed to be a means of balancing between
providing incentives for authors and ensuring that works circulate in the
public domain, over the past few decades, this balance has been completed
tilted in favour of the owners of copyright.

Increasingly, one sees the use of copyright to supplement restrictions on
freedom of speech and expression. A quick example: Alice Randall, an African
American author, wrote a rewriting of 'Gone With The Wind', from the
perspective of Scarlett O Hara's mullato half-sister. The publishers claimed
that this was an infringement of copyright and obtained an injunction
against the publication of the book. Thankfully, in this case, the court of
appeal then overturned the injunction.

Similarly, copyright licensing makes the acquisition or use of a
pre-existing work very very expensive, and let's hope that we don't go down
the US route where you have to take a hundred copyright permission before
you use any music, clip etc while making your own film. Think about your own
experiences. If you had to pay for every time you wanted to use a clip or a
song, how much would that add to your overheads?

A cautionary take: In 1990 Jon Else, an American documentary film-maker was
working on a documentary about Wagner's 'Ring Cycle'. The focus was
stage-hands at the San Francisco Opera. Stage-hands are a particularly funny
and colourful element of an opera. During a show, they hang out below the
stage in the grips' lounge and in the lighting loft. They make a perfect
contrast to the art on the stage.

During one of the performances, Else was shooting some stage-hands playing
checkers. In one corner of the room was a television set. Playing on the
television set, while the stage-hands played checkers and the opera company
played Wagner, was The Simpsons.

Else judge thought this shot would be great to use and he went ahead and shot
it; he then decide to obtain permission form the owners of the copyright in
The Simpsons to use the four-second clip. While Matt Groening, the creator,
did not have a problem, he did not own the copyright. Gracie Films, the
owner, demanded that he pay them $ 10,000 for the use of the four seconds.

Else obviously could not afford to pay them. He could have gone ahead and
used the clip, and it would have fallen under his 'fair use' right to do so.
But this was too risky given that Elsie films had a record of pursuing
copyright infringement cases, and the average costs of defending a law suit
in the US is $250,000.

The situation in the US is pretty bleak now, and any documentary film maker
submitting a film to a broadcast organization has get copyright clearances
for all materials used, otherwise they refuse to broadcast the film. This
sounds almost like the Indian scenario of obtaining the censor certificate
for films before broadcast.

>From software to the other world

Anyway, as a response to the stifling copyright regime, the Free Software
movement began. What it did was to create something called the GNU General
Public License. This license, instead of denying people access or
restricting their rights over a work, made software available for all with
the freedom to copy, modify, redistribute etc.

It is, of course, important to remember that the word Free here refers to
freedom, and not to price. The only condition was that if someone created
something new out of a Free Software, then that work would also have to be
licensed on the same terms and conditions, namely that it could not be taken
outside the public domain.

The movement has now spread to other domains  of cultural production and the
creative commons is the best example of how this idea is being used with
respect to movies, music, documentaries, literature etc. So why should
documentary film makers start taking the Free Software movement seriously
and think about similar licensing models for their works, as well as the
very idea of collaborative production for the future?

Here are some sound reasons:

* DISTRIBUTION, A MAJOR HEADACHE NOW: One of the biggest problems faced by
documentary film makers in India has been the question of circulation and
distribution. This is an issue which has been discussed in a number of
meetings as well as on electronic mailing-lists in cyberspace.

If the work were available freely (again note this does not mean that you
cannot charge for the documentary, but means that a person who has bought a
copy may make a copy and distribute it to others), there would a far greater
circulation of documentaries amongst other film makers, students, activists,
scholars and general public.

It is a fact that, currently, if you want to access documentaries, then you
either have to approach the film maker or approach an NGO (non-governmental
organisation) which keeps documentaries. Greater availability will ensure
greater distribution and subsequently promote documentary-film watching.

* IF YOU HAVE NO PROBLEM, SAY SO: I am sure that most documentary film
makers do not have a hassle if people circulate their work, but it is
important to remember that unless you state explicitly that people have a
right to do so, to use your work etc it is presumed that they do not have a
right to do so.

In that sense, Copyright by default applies to your work. Which is why it is
important to start thinking in terms of a pro-active licensing policy that
allows people to use your work.

immediate concerns that arise. If I make my work available, isn't there a
danger that someone will use my materials and pass it off as their own work.

By licensing under a 'open content' license, you do not waive all your
rights as the author of the work. It is really up to you to determine the
nature of the usage involved.

For instance, you could have a license that allows the work only to be
copied for non-profit purposes, so I can't make a hundred copies of your
work and then start selling the work for profit. Similarly, by licensing
under an open content license, you do not loose your other rights, such as
the right to be identified as the author of the work, and so on.  You may
allow or not allow someone to modify the work or use significant portions.

* FILM-MAKERS DON'T LIVE OFF ROYALTY:  More importantly is the fact that
most documentary film makers do not live off royalty in any case. Their
films are either commissioned or they earn some money from various prizes,
invitations and the like.

So, the fear of the loss of revenue cannot be a very serious one. But apart
from the fear of loss of revenue on the film maker's part is the more
important issue. When a film-maker is commissioned to make a film, it is
important to ask the question as to where that money comes form, and if the
money comes from public finding, there should be no reason why the film that
is made from public money should then become the private property of an
individual film-maker.

Let's assume that the money that is provided for the film is not that great
and cannot be measured in terms of the efforts that the film maker has put
in. It is important to acknowledge that the film maker still benefits in
terms of experience, credits, recognition, future assignments etc.

the individual creator genius is perhaps more violently expressed in film
making. Film making, as we all know, is perhaps one of the most
collaborative of the arts, and the amount of diverse labour that goes into
it is incredible.

Yet, for the purposes of copyright, the author of the film is considered to
be a single individual, namely the producer of the film.  To its credit, the
system of credits in film making, especially in feature film, still
recognizes this process of joint authorship.

Another issue, of course, is to recognise the hundred and thousands of
influences and inspirations that have gone into our own films. We need to
work beyond the assumed myths of copyright law, and develop alternative
practices that recognise the multiplicity that goes into the making of a

When we extend this principle to the making of films, we can start thinking
in terms of the great benefit that making film-footage available has on
film-making itself. I think at this point we really need to laud the efforts
taken by a few documentary film makers post-Gujarat, in the form of the
shared footage project. Given that we (documentary film-makers in India) are
a small community, it is important to start thinking in terms of the
benefits of collaboration, prime among which will obviously be vast amounts
of footage available to be used.

threatening creativity, then one of the means of protecting this creativity
is by ensuring that we take pro-active steps that build towards an ethic of
the public domain in our own practices as well.

One thing is sure: the digital revolution has arrived. You have more and
more people from a non-film-making background who want to experiment with
films, use it in the course of their work etc. In that sense the media and
the medium is no longer external to any of our practices.

At some level, we all have to, whether we are academics or lawyers or
activists, start thinking of ourselves as media professionals as well. And
the great thing that digital media has done is that it has enabled almost
any person to become a low-cost production studio.

You have a decent computer, and you can mix and match and edit your own
stuff. Tinkering cultures are a critical part of the way we are learning the
grammar of new media, for instance at the Alternative Law Forum, we have
been working to bring out a CD on queering Bollywood which brings together
clips of subversive queer readings of Bollywood. Three years ago we wold not
have imagined ourselves doing it.

Two students at the law school -- Warisha and Vinay -- have made their own
films, one on Kashmir and one on Pakistan. I think we are living in very
interesting times as far as democratic media is concerned, and we cant allow
the freedom provided by technology to get curbed through a content barrier
that arose in the 18th century as Copyright.

* IT'S A QUESTION OF POLITICS, ABOVE ALL: Finally most documentary film
makers would identify themselves as being against the neo-liberal global
order. It's therefore important to start realizing that intellectual
property is one of the key pillars upon which this neo-liberal order is
built, and important to incorporate the subjects of our film into our own
practices as well.

It does sound a little ironic to make a film on protests against the
hegemonic order of the WTO, and then claim strong protection for your own


Lawrence Liang is a Bangalore-based lawyer, and leads the Alternate Law
Forum. He wrote the above essay in an open letter addressed to Indian
documentary film-makers recently, over the docuwallahs2 mailing-list on
Yahoogroups.com -- http://groups.yahoo.com/group/docuwallahs2  He can be 
contacted via email at lawrenceliang99@yahoo.com

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