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Filmmaking: Intellectual Property, Fair Use, Copyright

Intellectual Property

Intellectual property refers to any intellectual creation including, but not limited to, literary works, artistic works, inventions, designs, etc. Law exists in order to protect the rights of creators and covers areas of copyright, trademark law, and patents.

Understanding Copyright is a key element of protecting intellectual property rights. All works are protected by copyright "the moment they are created and fixed in a tangle form perceptible directly or with the aid of a machine or device," according to the U.S. Copyright Office. You can learn more from the U.S. Copyright Office and from Creative Commons.

As a filmmaker it is important that you learn how to protect your own intellectual property and it is also important that you avoid infringing on the rights of other creators.

Copyright

Media copyright can be especially complex. A single work may simultaneously exist in multiple formats (e.g. analog, digital, web-based) and may have multiple creators: the composer or writer, the performance director, and the performer, for example. Media (or in fact any work) need not have a copyright symbol in order to be protected by copyright, and therefore it is essential to seek the proper exemptions or permissions to use the material. See our Copyright guide for more information about Fair Use.


If your intended use of media does not fall within the provisions of Fair Use, it is essential that you seek permission from the copyright holder(s). For example, anyone wishing to show a film or video in a public venue needs a public performance rights license (PPR) from the copyright holder(s).

Fair Use

The Fair Use doctrine allows excerpts of copyrighted materials to be used for certain purposes (education, news reporting, research, criticism, etc.) without permission or payment.  Sometimes Fair Use is regarded as a carte blanche to ignore copyright altogether, but it is important to recognize the limits of Fair Use and stay within the protection it provides.

  Details on Fair Use are explained on our Fair Use- Copyright Guide. As a brief summary, be aware that Fair Use case law centers around 4 factors;

  • The purpose and character of the use
  • The nature of the copyrighted work
  • The amount of the work used
  • The effect of the use on the potential market for the work

You can use this Fair Use Checklist from the librarians at Columbia University to help you determine if your intended use is protected. Do not assume you can completely ignore copyright because you are a student.