Hello from Documentary Production Copyright Purgatory!

Aliss Valerie Terrell
5 min readDec 1, 2022
(Me with the tree that owns itself, Athens, Georgia, realizing how far I still have to climb…)

I write this as an American in Paris, where Intellectual Property is considered a basic human right, perhaps even more sacred than in the US.

As a writer and visual artist myself, I enjoy creativity as experimentation, poetic license and free association. Developing something new, I go with my instinct, brainstorm with myself and others, put together what looks-sounds-feels right, and censor myself as little as possible, but taking care not to plagiarize.

The same is true for the project I’m putting together now, a trailer for a documentary about my uncle, Mr. Charlie, his million tree- 1000-acre-bequest to the University of Georgia, their sale of it, and how we can act for climate justice.

And telling a real-life story means including other points of view.

My video will feature footage I’ve filmed myself, a few family photos, stock images, music, and for context…. some visuals created by others.

BTW, calling it a trailer, can be misleading. “Trailer” immediately suggests Hollywood, Cannes, movie theaters, TV news programs, talk shows with media VIP’s, full page adds in the press, PR firms and big marketing budgets. Mine will debut as a 2-ish minute self-produced, unmonetized video on my YouTube channel. As of today, I don’t have millions to spend.

Can you divine where this is going?

Let’s start with my first reality check, the music: Making a rough demo on iMovie to get a feel for the raw material and show my editor what I want it to look like, I synced a hit song about money by a famous band, just as a playful way to get started and add some rhythm. When I ran this by a musician/producer friend, he smirked and said, “Do you have $100,000? That’s how much it will cost you.”

Hmmm. I wasn’t attached to that track anyway, a bit too snarky for the tone I wanted to set, and I kept hearing echoes of a beautiful classical piece my uncle played for me when I was little, very magical, with special meaning for me because he also gave me the antique vinyl, which I still have.

Easy-peasy, I thought. The score must be in the public domain due to the remote date of the composer’s demise. I’ll digitize and sync it. Right?

Just to be sure, I made an appointment with an attorney friend who specializes in music IP and copyrights. Bad news: The score is in the public domain, but the vinyl “master” is not and will not be until 90 years after the recording was issued! You can’t use it without permission.

What about a gorgeous version on YouTube, recorded in Hungary? The attorney informed me that one isn’t copyright-free either. What about the YouTube audio library proposed by its parent company Google? The copyright still belongs to the composer, said the lawyer, be careful if you want to share it on other platforms.

The plot thickens.

Finding who owned the copyright for the classical vinyl was a labyrinth. Companies and catalogs have been sold and renamed, difficult to figure out where to send an email, much less call. Reach out to Hungary for the YouTube version? How and in what language? A Hungarian music friend helped me track down the publisher’s website and online license request form, which thankfully was in English. I filled it out weeks ago and…am still waiting for an answer.

Fortunately, my attorney contact suggested a number of music publishers’ audio libraries that charge a licensing fee, sometimes reasonable, and guarantee copyright safety.

Because… more bad news: in the US, copyright infringement can incur huge penalties and legal expenses, sometimes in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Best case, your video or film can be taken down at the request of the copyright holder.

“What about sharing on social media,” I asked? Millions of people share and repost content every day. “That’s a gray area,” said the attorney, but do you want to take the chance? At least get an email permission to protect yourself.”

Me, now: trying to reach the next level of the copyright video game. Even with an outstanding NGO where I know some of the senior staff personally, who have offered me their content, it took weeks to process requests.

It’s very awkward because I’m sure I’m causing admin headaches in a world where everyone shares everything and no one wants to deal with extra paperwork.

Interesting perspective at a Thanksgiving dinner party, last week, where I met a young woman in charge of international marketing for a major Hollywood studio. The subject of copyrights came up between sips of champagne. She said part of her job is to field requests to use film clips from their blockbusters. When she announces that the licensing fee is $10,000 a minute, there’s a lull in the conversation. Then she says, “But go ahead and use it, we won’t sue you.”

And now some good news: I have obtained an affordable license from a major music publishing company to sync the classical piece I’m crazy about. That’s a victory. And… some of the stock footage I coveted from a government agency is copyright-free in my situation. Meanwhile, purchasing stock footage to download legally.

But:

Still waiting for answers from 2 environmental IG sites that may never come. Numerous emails, DM’s and phone calls.

Silver lining: all this information is very valuable and timely for another project I’m finishing up: a memoir about my teenage summer in pre-perestroika Russia and my return to Putin’s Russia for my son’s adoption. A written documentary!

Along with my own writing and photos, I had included quotes from letters, a translated favorite poem by a deceased Russian poetess, one photo by another photographer and some Cold War cartoon characters…

Guess what! All under copyright, all involving requests for permission from across the globe.

To be continued!

PS couldn’t find any sexy pictures of copyrights…meanwhile…

For more information:

Originally published at http://thankyouparis.wordpress.com on December 1, 2022.

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Aliss Valerie Terrell

I’ve had several lives since coming to France: grad student, singer songwriter, writer and filmmaker, marriage and mothering….