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Film & TV copyright - The Facts

Hollywood sign copyrighted Copyrighting is one of the most important and complicated parts of the creative industries. Films often have several parts of their production process copyrighted and/or ensure the usage of some of their content is cleared from copyright.

Copyrighted components can range from scripts to artwork and music to background scenery. Did you know for example, that if you film in LA you need special permission to show the famous Hollywood sign in the background? This because it is protected under US trademark law.

Film copyrights last 70 years after the death of the last survivor on the production, whether that is the director, screenwriter or composer. So, what are the facts and what are some of the most famous cases of copyrighting?

The first known film to be copyrighted in its entirety was Fred Ott’s Sneeze, made in 1894 by William K.L. Dickinson in the US. In the film Fred Ott, Thomas Edison’s assistant, inhales snuff and sneezes. The copyright on the film has now expired and it is freely available for all to watch and for the footage to be used in any production.

In the past, many weird and wonderful things have been copyrighted, not just unique footage or sounds, but also the more familiar items, such as the Happy Birthday song, which – as far as we know – is owned by Warner/Chappell until 2030.

Two other famous patented sounds are the MGM lion’s roar and the original Tarzan call performed by Johnny Weissmuller. The Tarzan yell is currently owned by Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc. The original roar was updated in 1999 for Disney’s Tarzan franchise and it has since been used for comical effects in many other ‘Tarzanesque’ instances in film, television and commercials.

Martin Luther King Selma film copyright One really interesting copyrighting case that recently came to light is that of Martin Luther King’s speeches. These were licensed by the King Estate to Dreamworks, provided Steven Spielberg produced the film they would be used in.

Oscar and Golden Globe-winner Selma therefore was not able to use Dr King’s words. However, the production team found their way around it by ensuring speeches in the film weren’t made up of the exact words used in the famous addresses.

The movie’s director, Ava DuVernay, says she was aware of the copyrighting from the start of the project and didn’t even try to get a licence for the particular speeches due to the complications and costs involved.

The idea of patenting can appear straightforward but actually can be quite complicated. Straightforward in the sense that someone owns a product and has to be asked permission for its use by other parties. However, if viewed globally, copyrighting is quite inconsistent and different laws apply in different countries.

Copyright issues also contribute to differences in the film market between developed and developing countries. Copyrighting laws are big business and taken very seriously in the developed world, whereas there isn’t as much emphasis on copyrighting in the developing world.

Contracts like writers’ agreements simply don’t exist in many developing countries and this makes it difficult for filmmakers from these parts of the globe to get funding or distribution abroad for projects they’ve already developed. No sales company wants to burn their fingers on contracts that are not legally watertight.

In order to compete, filmmakers have to be very careful of breaching copyright. Take for example the recent case of Ian McKellen-starrer Mr. Holmes, which premiered last February at the Berlin Film Festival.

The estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is suing the film studio, Miramax, because it says the feature borrows content from some of Doyle’s later books, which – unlike some of his other Sherlock stories – still fall under their copyright in the US. Miramax, however, says the film directed by Bill Condon is based on the 2005 book A Slight Trick of the Mind by the American writer Mitch Cullin.

As copyrights come in many forms, ensuring your production is legally watertight can be quite a challenging task and failure to comply has led to many legal disputes. So, next time you film something make sure you check and double check, and get a specialist legal advisor on board to make sure all your footage and music has been cleared.