Documentary and Fair Use

Via an email tip, a pointer to this Wired article reporting on a comic book by three Duke University law professors on the difficulties that documentary filmmakers face in dealing with copyright law. The entire comic book is available for free online at Duke University’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain and provides a good overview of the ways in which copyright law can both promote and inhibit good documentary work. As the book illustrates, fair use protections do give filmmakers a lot of freedom, but uncertainty about what constitutes fair use still leads to a lot of confusion. The book also points to useful resources such as the Chilling Effects Clearinghouse that may be useful to filmmakers and other artists who are engaging with (or even passively capturing) copyrighted material or even trademarks that hapen to be visible in the background.

Update: While you’re in the neighborhood, Duke’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain looks like an incredibly useful resource for the topic of documentary and copyright, including this collection of films and videos that explore “the tensions between art and intellectual property law, and the intellectual property issues artists face, focusing on either music or documentary film.”


  1. Agnes Varnum Said,

    June 20, 2006 @ 9:11 pm

    “uncertainty about what constitutes fair use still leads to a lot of confusion” — uncertainty is greatly reduced with the Documentary Filmmakers’ Statement of Best Practices in Fair Use. Hopefully, if you don’t already have a copy, you’ll download it and share with your students.

    There is also a lot of materials to use for teaching on the Center for Social Media site. And if you are going to UFVA, we will presenting a lot of information there – including a panel discussion on Wed afternoon with Michael Donaldson, Lisa Leeman and Kirby Dick, amoung others.

    I hope that helps!

  2. Chuck Said,

    June 20, 2006 @ 10:15 pm

    Thanks, Agnes. I know a little about the American University Center for Social Media (it’s not clear from my blog right now, but I taught at Catholic University here in DC this past school year as a visiting professor), and CSM is certainly doing some valuable work. In fact, I think that short video produced by Pat Aufderheide is particularly lucid on documentary and copyright.

    I don’t teach production right now, but when I teach specific documentaries, such as Outfoxed, Super Size Me or something like Eyes on the Prize, I think it would be worth getting into fair use and copyright issues with my students.

    At some point I need to find my way to UFVA, too, but it may not happen this year.

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