“A documentary is being filmed. A cell phone rings, playing the “Rocky” theme song. The filmmaker is told she must pay $10,000 to clear the rights to the song. Can this be true?” The Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke Law School has produced a comic book, Bound by Law, explaining US copyright. Even though specific to US law, it’s still useful elsewhere.
An independent documentary filmmaker is led by two guides through the thickets of copyright law as she tries to learn what she can use in her film. Does she need to get the permission of the people whose images she records? Does she have to pay the rightsholder of the song being played by the street busker? Does she have to pay for the program on the television set in the background? What is Fair Use? With so many details to worry about, and the potential for so many expenses, does she want to bother making the film at all? These are the kinds of problems that beset creative people in this age of copyright extremism.
At the same time that she learns about the roadblocks thrown up by copyright, she also learns how it is meant to protect her own work, once she produces it. Would she want to bother creating something if it could be taken and used by anyone without recompense, or even acknowledgement? This is the line that copyright law tries to draw. Protect creators’ rights to encourage them to create, in the hope of getting new works that will one day enter the Public Domain, there to inspire new creations.
The comic book, Bound by Law, does a good job of explaining US copyright law in a graphical, entertaining way. It has been licensed Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial Share Alike (CC-BY-NC-SA) by its creators, Keith Aoki, James Boyle and Jennifer Jenkins. You are entitled to download it for free, and you can make copies and share them, as long as it’s not for commercial purposes (NC,) you attribute the creators (BY) and you share any derivatives the same way (SA.)
Copyright law is hard, and getting worse. Bound by Law will help you begin to understand it.