Copyright Issues in Documentary Filmmaking


Making a documentary is a legal minefield. It’s important to carefully navigate this minefield so you don’t run into any legal repercussions down the road. Below are the top five legal issues that every documentary filmmaker should know about.


  1. Fair Use

“Fair use” soon becomes the two favorite words of any documentary filmmaker. This particular copyright law allows the use of copyrighted works for purposes including criticism, comment, teaching, and research. Permission isn’t needed in these scenarios.

A copyright court looks at four issues to define fair use. These include the purpose of the use, the nature of the copyrighted work, the amount of the copyrighted work being used, and the effect on the value of the copyrighted work. Simply put, the more you transform the copyrighted material and the less of it you use, the better off you’ll be.

  1. Copyright Clearance

Copyright clearance relates to those things that don’t fall under fair use. In other words, you have to get clearance to use this material. This particular copyright law gives copyright owners a lot of control over how their copyrighted works are used.

What this means for the documentary filmmaker is that you might have to pay to use a lot of materials. A sample of a material that requires copyright clearance is a song you want to use in your film.

  1. Defamation and Trade Libel

Stone Productions, an Emmy award winning video production company out of Nashville, TN, knows that a good documentary will likely tick at least one person off. And the people it ticks off will likely be powerful. The good news is that you’re likely protected if you’re a documentary filmmaker working with legitimate facts. Unfortunately, just because you’re right doesn’t mean you have the money to prove it in the courts.

  1. Subpoenas

Many of the best documentaries seek out a controversial truth. And while the public might view you as an investigative journalist, the law does not. With that said, the law doesn’t usually protect documentarians if they are subpoenaed during the filmmaking process.

  1. Accounting

The filmmaking world, especially Hollywood, is notoriously shady. Many film studios find ways to ensure that documentary filmmakers don’t make as much money as they should. So be sure to focus on up-front advances and cash-guarantees when making a deal. Even though the mission of your film probably wasn’t to get rich, getting paid for your efforts never hurts.

Documentary filmmaking is riddled with copyright issues. That’s why it’s so important to have a basic understanding of them before diving head into this interesting world.