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Doc U Recap: Understanding Fair Use [PHOTOS]

By KJ Relth

This past Monday, January 30, members of the documentary community kicked off the first Doc U of 2012 at Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theater with a conversation about the intricate details of fair use in documentary filmmaking. 

We may or may not have broken a few fire codes to get everyone in the building, but we should have known that this panel would be so popular! Chairs had to be set up in the aisles to accommodate the overwhelming turnout for this event.

Michael Lumpkin started the seminar by introducing moderator Adam Chapnick (far right) and panelists (from left to right) Michael Donaldson, Mitchell Block, and Russell Hickey

Michael Donaldson, an entertainment attorney who has been fighting for independent filmmakers for most of his career, started off by helping the audience with some easy ways to identify what he called the "safe harbor" in fair use. Donaldson told the audience to ask themselves three important questions in order to be safer than safe:

1. Does this clip or piece of music clearly illustrate your point?
2. Did you only use as much as needed to illustrate the point?
3. Is the connection between the item you are using and the pint you are making obvious to the average viewer?

Donaldson asked why we even have fair use in the first place, and emphasized that if not for fair use, so much good art and journalism could not be done.

Next, Russell Hickey of AXIS Pro Insurance took the mic to discuss how his company looks at risks as a whole. When a filmmaker buys insurance for a project, AXIS Pro looks at the claim holistically to determine whether or not the project is likely to generate a claim. Axis Pro has a long history of helping filmmakers through the hurdles of E&O Insurance. If a project has questionable use of clips from other sources or music that's superfluous to the point being made on screen, then that film carriers more of a risk for an insurance carrier. If one isn't able to obtain full coverage for their film from an insurance carrier, the likelihood of that film finding any kind of meaningful distribution melts away. "Any time you're dealing with unlicensed footage," Hickey warned, "you're dealing with a risk."

Fresh off of a plane from halfway around the world, documentary producer Mitchell Block had his turn, which he chose to use defending the rights of documentary filmmakers and their footage. Seemingly playing devil's advocate, Block reminded the audience that one person's use of footage is another person's loss of income. As documentary filmmakers, we capture images of famous people and historical events for the sake of telling a story, but also for the means of posterity. When the next generation of filmmakers or the next person to do a film on the same topic comes along, what rights do you have as the owner of a useful piece of footage that other storytellers need to make their story more complete? What do we do as filmmakers to protect those income streams?

After the panel, the conversation continued in the front of the theater and on the back patio, where everyone in the seminar fielded burning questions from those in the audience. 

Moderator Adam Chapnick speaking to eager audience members and fellow IDA supporters. 

Documentary magazine editor Tom White mingling with other members of the IDA community.

That's quite a spread! The Winter issue of Documentary magazine will soon give way to the newest issue - look for it in a few weeks!


Thanks to everyone who made Monday night a huge success. We'll see you at our next Doc U in February!

Doc U is made possible by generous grants and contributions from our donors. Special support provided by:

Los Angeles County Arts Commission HFPA AXIS PRO IMAX
Thought Equity MotionHBO Archives Indie Printing


Members and Supporters of IDA