Copyright Laws Every Filmmaker Should Know

June 20, 2016

Technology has always been a blessing and a curse. Today, technology has put the world at our fingertips. Creating and sharing videos and music has never been easier. But if you’re producing videos, it is crucial to be aware of legal side of creativity, starting with copyright laws.

Copyright law is federal law and does not vary from state to state. It protects your video and every individual piece of that video. The protection occurs automatically and immediately when the video is fixed in a tangible medium. Once you’ve created your video, only you, the copyright owner, can give permission to others to copy the video, to distribute copies of the video by sale, rent, lease, or other transfer of ownership, to prepare derivative works based upon the video or its contents, or to perform (i.e., show) the video publicly.


It does more harm than good to not have a signed talent release when you need one. Although a blanket release of an area (restaurant, bar, park) works for people in the background of your production, always have anyone appearing on-camera in your video sign a release prior to shooting. The release protects you against legal issues as it gives you permission to use the person’s likeness for commercial and non-commercial purposes.

Recording Location

Generally, you have the right to shoot video at (or from) public places such as public streets, parks or public events for non-commercial purposes. But if your video is for commercial purposes you might need a shooting permit for public places. Many cities have a film board or mayor’s office of film so check to be sure. Remember, that your subjects have privacy rights. You also don’t have the right to record at (or from) private places such as someone’s home or business, without a signed release. Since 9/11, some private buildings will not allow you to shoot them at all, even if you are shooting from a public place such as a pedestrian mall.

Legal Audio

Sound is a crucial part of any video production and with today’s technology and availability of audio clips, music or sound effects on the Internet, it’s tempting to use whatever you may find. Don’t! Chances are you are infringing on someone else’s copyright rights by doing so. If you cannot create you own audio, you can always hire someone to create it for you. If you use audio that you have not created, you must obtain a license to use the audio prior to incorporating it into your video. Another popular option is to use ‘buyout music’ which requires a one-time fee for unlimited use.

Stills and Images

If you use stills or images in your video, create them yourself. If you use video clips or photos that have been created by others, you should obtain permission from the owner and anyone else contributing to the work, such as actors or models.

Fair Use

In United States copyright law, “fair use” allows creators to incorporate copyrighted materials into their own work, without obtaining permission from the copyright holder, when certain conditions are met. Some examples of fair use include news reporting, criticism, scientific research, teaching and parody. Unfortunately, there is no simple formula or method to easily determine whether a use of a copyrighted work is fair so be careful. If the copyright owner disagrees with your use, you may face a lawsuit and potential damages of up to $150,000. The penalty is greater if the court finds the infringement willful. Do not use other creators’ work unless you have their permission. Merely because it is ever easier to copy the works of others, via computers, tape recorders, VCRs, photocopiers and the Internet, for example, doesn’t make it lawful to do so. Vimeo has a great overview on the particulars of fair use for video.

Copyright Notice

A copyright notice is often seen in books, on music albums, videos, and artwork, which are all eligible for copyright protection. Copyright protection exists immediately when you create a work of the type that is eligible under the Copyright Act, and does not require registration to be valid. Make sure you always place a notice on your video. The notice should be seen either at the beginning or end of your video. You should also include the notice on any packaging that contains your video, such as DVD labels.

COPYRIGHT Registration

Even though you copyrighted your video, it is not yet completely protected. To fully protect you work under copyright law, it is necessary to register the copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office ( It’s simple and inexpensive to do and provides the greatest protection you can have against infringers.

One common myth is that mailing a copy of your work to yourself gives you a copyright in that work. That’s not really true. Mailing a copy to yourself (preferably by certified mail) does help to establish the date the work was created. However, because envelopes are easily steamed open, a judge may be unwilling to accept a mailed copy as proof that a song was written on a certain date.


The duration of copyright depends on several things – when it was created, the creator’s date of death, whether is has been published and the date of the first publication. Generally, works created on or after January 1, 1978 have copyright protection for life plus 70 years. If the work is anonymous, the term is the shorter of 95 or 120 years. To determine the duration of copyright protection for a particular work, see Chapter 3 of the Copyright Act (Title 17 of the United States Code).

The last thing that you need to worry about while creating a video is copyright infringement and the penalties associated with it. Avoid all of the legal issues by having releases ready to be signed before recording any video, audio or still photos, and by buying, obtaining permission to use, or creating your own pieces to use in the video (images, sound effects, music, etc.). When your video is finished, protect your creation by using a copyright notice and registering your work with the U.S. Copyright Office. It is easier to deal with the legal issues prior to video recording than to face the legal issues after you’ve done all of the work.


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