Back to IndieWire

8 Legal Tips for Documentary Filmmakers

8 Legal Tips for Documentary Filmmakers

Over the course of my career, as both the founder of The Film Collaborative and an attorney in private practice at Early Sullivan, I have noticed a lack of understanding by filmmakers regarding the law and documentary film distribution. I hope to provide some clarity in the following blog post. But keep in mind that this post does not replace legal advice tailored to a specific film, filmmaker and distribution options/deals. Feel free to contact me with specific inquiries (contact info at the end of this post).

READ MORE: How to Win at Film Festival Roulette: Stacking Your Odds at the Top Fests

1. Life rights

Recently at the Edinburgh Pitch / Film Festival a filmmaker asked me a very interesting question about “life rights.” He asked whether he could prevent a media outlet from covering a story about a person or persons in a way that competed with his forthcoming documentary. He wanted to know if his having life rights to a person’s or persons’ story would make a difference. The short answer is “no;” there really is no legal protection of “life rights.”

A life rights agreement obligates the subject selling his/her life rights to cooperate with the buyer. The subject/seller is committing to helping the buyer obtain information about the subject’s life and releasing the buyer from any claims by the subject against the eventual filmmaker, and ideally also to promoting the project. These agreements, however, cannot stop a third-party from taking an interest in the story facts and covering them.

Factual information is not copyrightable. That is not to say there are no copyright theories to protect a documentary from being overtly copied. But there is no legal way to prevent a third-party from using the same true facts and expressing those facts in another work. So, one might want to keep exposure of the story under wraps, if possible, until the documentary is out, and proceed with making an excellent documentary that demands to be seen and won’t be trumped by news segments or other content.

If this issue is coming up for you and you have a concern about being overtly copied beyond the facts, then you may want to discuss with an attorney. Chances are the other party will not copy too much beyond the non-copyrightable facts for there to be legal recourse. And many jurisdictions are not so copyright-friendly to begin with. This would be especially true for documentaries where the content is non-fiction and akin to journalism.

2. Worldwide rights deals

This issue combines legal and business issues I have encountered as both an executive and an attorney. These days, with platforms such as Netflix providing international opportunities to documentary filmmakers, one should be wary of committing to international sales agents to make the “worldwide” deal. An adept U.S. sales agent or lawyer could procure and handle a great worldwide Netflix or CNN deal.  A U.S. agent or lawyer might have a better shot at the worldwide deal, hence it makes sense to exhaust that option before committing to an international sales strategy. This may be of interest because often the U.S. agents’ and lawyers’ commissions and recoupable expenses are sometimes lower than an international sales companies’ (and there is often good reason for that given the breadth of territories and markets to cover on the international front).

In my experience, many American documentaries do not do well overseas and, even when they sell, they sell small. Of course there are exceptions. Point being; evaluate the potential of one big U.S. deal with lower commissions versus using international sales agents, who typically charge more. Have an experienced lawyer or producer help you carve out rights based on these possibilities (if applicable) or perhaps to help you know if and when it is appropriate to bring an international sales agent on board. Being realistic about your film’s potential based on market conditions and appropriate comparisons is critical to effective distribution and the avoidance of mistakes.

3. Educational rights vs. digital distribution

At The Film Collaborative we often notice that the more successful a film is via educational distribution and festival/non-theatrical distribution the less successful it is via traditional television and digital distribution. In short, certain less-commercial content is appealing to film festival programmers, universities, museums and other educational/non-theatrical outlets. There are, of course, exceptions to that rule and some documentaries do well across all rights and categories of distribution. These days, educational distribution involves streaming (in addition to digital master exhibition or DVD sales) but for a higher price-point than retail streaming.

Some education institutions are savvy enough not to use commercial retail copies of your film for a classroom or campus exhibition, but some do, without realizing there is a potential legal issue.  If your film could do especially well on the festival circuit and through educational distribution, then you might want to delay your regular home entertainment digital and television distribution. It is also true that many film festivals will not show your film if it’s commercially available via consumer-facing platforms such as iTunes and Netflix. Most all-rights distributors do not handle educational rights either at all or as well as certain specializing educational rights distributors. Therefore, you might want to save those rights for a company specializing in “exploiting” them. The key will then be coordinating rights and windows between distributors in any given territory. Note that splitting rights is generally not an option with the majors but it is with many others and I have personally done as many as seven deals in a single territory.

4. Rights for the future

Protecting your rights for the future while satisfying the licensee (buyer/distributor) for the term of an ongoing deal can be challenging. Most deals of the past didn’t anticipate the digital age, including the Internet and streaming. There have been scores of legal battles over contracts that didn’t explicitly address digital distribution, causing parties to a deal to fight over digital rights (for example squabbling over what is included in “all technologies now known or hereinafter invented,” home video or “videogram” rights). Another even more common battle would be over whether digital rights falls into the video (VHS and then DVD) royalty or TV/broadcast.

The reason for the fight was, of course, the fact that the royalty to licensor (producers/filmmakers) or distribution percentages to distributor differ based on rights category (classification of rights). I think the degree to which one raises this as an issue should be based on the overall potential of the film in the present and the degree to which it may be evergreen or experience an uptick based on cast name recognition or genre. I like to do deals that are not only rights class/category-oriented (e.g. broadcast rights, theatrical rights), but that are broken down by revenue, and anticipate the future. You may not always have leverage to do this but if you do, it’s worth analyzing so that you do not risk having a category of rights or type of distribution that you once took for granted all of a sudden emerges as very significant and the terms are simply not in your favor and now you are locked in for 20 years. Also, you would have other protections for such a long license term if it cannot be avoided.

5. Fair use

A quick note to enlighten filmmakers about the doctrine of Fair Use, which affords one an exception to copyright protection for content used that would otherwise be protected by copyright, but only if certain factors are met. Factors include an analysis of how much of the copyrighted content at issue is used in the work; the nature and purpose of the work (for e.g. is it educational); and the effect of the use of the copyrighted work on the marketplace (e.g. will its use likely effect the potential market for the copyrighted work).  This comes into play in documentaries all the time. Documentaries use new footage, photography, movie clips, archival content, etc. Fair Use is a copyright principle that allows certain otherwise copyright protected content to be used for commentary, criticism and educational purposes.

Fair Use is a legal theory and an exception to copyright that one can use a defense. It is not a license. This means that the holder of the copyright may still sue you even if you have a fair use letter from the attorney who helped you to obtain E&O insurance. So, for example, you and your attorney may believe that your use of 15-minutes of “Magic Mike XXL” in your documentary about contemporary feminism in the least expected place is “fair use,” but Warner Brothers might think otherwise. Or, maybe they’ll love it and even offer you a distribution deal. But if the copyright owner of the content perceives they lost money because of your work or is offended by how your work portrayed their work, you may be more at risk.

Of course, my example is a tad silly but the point is that when you use someone else’s copyrighted content, the degree to which you can is not always crystal clear at the outset as a matter of law. All this to say, just remember that fair use opinions are just that, opinions. A copyright holder can still sue your distributor and/or the production company entity that made the film if they feel their content has been infringed. [This assumes that you know better than to make a film under your own personal name that could expose you to significant risk of legal liability risk.]  Be sure to consult an attorney BEFORE you edit your film to final cut so that you can minimize your risk of including content that might trigger a lawsuit. Lawsuits are costly and can impede distribution.

6. Price lock for licensing rights not actually licensed ahead of premiering

Well before your premiere, resolve the price for any music, footage, etc. that you are not licensing for worldwide rights in perpetuity. For example, your production budget may not allow for worldwide licensing in all rights and you may never have good reason to pay for that.  So at first you license more limitedly. But it is best practice to resolve the price for any remaining rights (and for any remaining territories) so you don’t have to worry about the price being higher once the film is finished and distribution is underway. The price most often would only go up based on any success you have, and it’s better to have your licensing details resolved before you show the film and prepare it for distribution, whether DIY or via distributors. 

7. Contracts are for honest people

This one is for ALL filmmakers, not just documentaries. I have seen countless disputes between people who verbally agreed to or thought they agreed to something and then argued about the agreement. It is also much more difficult to enforce an agreement not on paper.  Contracts help people clarify and establish on paper what they mean (note that I have seen many convoluted contracts seemingly designed to confuse). With proper thinking, planning and good lawyering, contracts can help clarify exactly what people intend and mean by certain terms or phrases.

Contracts help force parties to think things through. Unfortunately, people fear entering into a contract or bringing up the idea of a formal agreement because they think it’s insulting or offensive. “What, you don’t think I’m honest?” Yet if one establishes from the outset that contracts are for honest people, then the other party will likely not be offended. A clear and well-drafted contract will help avoid litigation, not create it. I have seen way too many people wronged by trusting things will work out. Friends turn to frenemies over credit, money and vision issues that weren’t explicitly laid out on paper.  Someone worth having on your team will not object to having a formal, non-onerous agreement. If they do, you want to analyze why. 

8. Lawyer who knows distribution

Do not have your uncle, friend or family attorney who knows nothing about distribution do your legal work for your film. That is irresponsible and will harm you in the long run. Handling distribution and film licensing contracts requires a strong knowledge of the business and supporting law. Even issues around how to enforce rights via international deals and whether or not to have an arbitration provision are specific and require industry knowledge, specifically distribution knowledge. Of course, this is especially true for rights issues.  

I have been asked other questions pertaining to chain-of-title, project control, financing, etc. that are beyond the scope of this post.  Please feel free to reach out if you would like me to address something specifically.  

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute legal advice and you should consult a lawyer about your specific situation. Also note that the images which accompany the story represent examples of films that TFC is handling for festival distribution. They are not involved in the legal concerns mentioned in the article.

Orly Ravid is the founder of The Film Collaborative and has 15 years experience in film distribution (acquisitions and sales), business affairs and festival programming. She is also an attorney at the law firm of Early Sullivan Gizer Wright & McRae (oravid@earlysullivan.com) in Los Angeles. Ravid previously enjoyed a judicial externship at the California Supreme Court and a clerkship at Los Angeles Superior Court (where she also worked for the judge presiding over the Jackson v. AEG trial). She received her B.A. in English Literature with a concentration in film studies from Columbia University.

READ MORE: Attention, Filmmakers: 4 Things to Understand About Fair Use

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Toolkit and tagged , , ,

Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox