Answers to Burning Legal Questions That Will Keep Your Film from Going Up in Flames
Let's be honest -- most of us are not savvy when it comes to entertainment law. In fact, it's one of the areas of filmmaking that, although absolutely essential, can staunch the flames of creativity and bring an entire project to a standstill. However, entertainment attorney Lisa Callif answers some of the most pertinent development, production and distribution questions many of us are asking, offering insight into the world of film litigation as a lawyer whose focus is representing independent filmmakers.
An entertainment attorney at Donaldson + Callif, Callif was named as one of The Best and The Brightest by Variety in 2011, and has much experience in the fair-use doctrine, an important area of expertise for her documentarian clientele. She has worked on documentaries such as I’m Still Here, The Invisible War, Waiting for Superman, and This Film Is Not Yet Rated.
In an Film Independent interview, Callif answers several questions that are typical for independent filmmakers who want to protect their films at all phases of production.
Protecting your film before you pitch it
One of the first things to think about as you're preparing to share the idea for your film is how to protect it before pitching it to others. Callif says:
It might sound counter-intuitive, but the best way to protect your project is to develop it as much as you can before pitching it. Don’t pitch an "idea." Ideas aren’t copyrightable and as we have probably all experienced, if you have a great idea, there are probably one or three or 20 other people with that same idea. What is protectable and probably unique to you is the expression of that idea. It’s much harder for someone to steal your work if it is fully developed. And why would they? You’ve already done a lot of the work. It’s much cheaper for them to hire you, or at least buy your project, rather than risk a lawsuit.
Trademark Law: Can I shoot recognizable places/products without permission?
This is a question that I personally have asked quite a bit, and often with varying answers, "Yeah, as long as the logo is sectioned or is kind of fuzzy." "No, absolutely not! Do you want to be taken away in an unmarked van?" If you're thinking that I should get better legal advice, you're right.
The simple answer is yes, it's legal to film a recognizable place, brand, or logo as long as the following criteria are met:
i) the place or product shot is portrayed in the manner it is commonly portrayed; and (ii) the audience is not led to believe that the brand or store is sponsoring or associated with your film.
However, Callif most interesting thing about what she says doesn't have much to do with the legal side, but the business side:
Keep in mind that many producers do not want to put brands in their films because they want to get a product placement fee for doing so. This is not a legal reason, it’s a business one. Big studios also have policies about the use of products in productions, but these are business/policy reasons and not necessarily legal. Additionally, brands can be sensitive and may not be happy with being used in a film if they don’t like the message or how they are being portrayed. However, if you keep within the confines of the above, the brand owner might be upset, but won’t have a valid claim.
It's definitely a breath of fresh air to hear from an entertainment attorney, or any type of attorney for that matter, who breaks down the law in terms that are more easily understandable. And Lisa Callif answers a couple other questions in the rest of the article, so be sure to give it a read.
What advice can you offer to ensure protection for film projects? What resources do you think offer solid, understandable legal advice for creatives? Let us know in the comments!