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Victory for Doc Filmmakers

Documentary filmmakers like me are excited to see the new exemption to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. For years, we’ve had to tread lightly when using clips from protected, commercial films in our documentaries. While the clip itself may be permitted under a 150-year old legal argument called Fair Use, breaking into the DVD encryption to actually get the clip was illegal – until now.

This week, the US Copyright Office granted an exemption to the DMCA for filmmakers, professors, students, and non-commercial video makers if they use short portions to make “new works for the purpose of criticism or comment.”

James Farmer leads protest in LouisianaWhy is this important? Access to archival materials is a critical part of a docum

entary filmmaker’s ability to tell the story she wants to tell. When I was making The Good Fight: James Farmer Remembers the Civil Rights Movement, I found that they only way to depict Farmer’s significant contributions to the civil rights movement was by using videos and films from the past forty years that actually showed him in action as he battled the giants of the day – Malcolm X, President Nixon, and Jim Crow.

Fair Use enabled me to illustrate Farmer’s criticism of the status quo and racist beliefs he spent a lifetime fighting, but finding a source print of the footage is often extremely burdensome or nearly impossible. This law will make it much easier for filmmakers like me to access footage from third-party sources, which means more stories like The Good Fight will get to be told.

Just imagine all the new films that will be made now that documentary filmmakers are free from having to omit critical footage for fear of legal action.

Speaking of films, what’s your favorite documentary?

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