August 31, 2013

Answers to Burning Legal Questions That Will Keep Your Film from Going Up in Flames

Lisa Callif Entertainment LawyerLet'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.

Callif goes on to recommend registering your treatments, outlines, and scripts with the WGA, as well as your completed scripts with the US Copyright Office.

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:

gavel and books

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!

Link: Find Answers with Entertainment Attorney Lisa Callif -- Film Independent

Your Comment

18 Comments

Thank you very much for the valuable info.

August 31, 2013 at 8:01PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Thank you

August 31, 2013 at 9:44PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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I've got a question, if you purchase a single use license to an instrumental music track, is it legal to add a unique vocal track, and/or additional instruments to produce a final soundtrack in your film? Or do you need to leave the purchased song as it is. Obviously you can add Foley on top, but what about say, a violin?

September 1, 2013 at 7:48AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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James

Firstly, I'm not a legal expert of any kind.
Now that that's out of the way, if I were you, I would re-read the terms of the license associated wit the music. Usually, if you dig deep enough, you'll find text explaining the bounds of what you're allowed to do in terms of remixing, modification, transformation, and other methods of altering the work. If that kind of use is allowed, it generally means you can do whatever you want to the music as long as it's incorporated into a separate work.

That said, generally the answer will be "yes". Most legitimate licenses you have to pay for will allow for transformation, etc., of the original work. Still, always -- always -- read the terms just to make sure.

September 1, 2013 at 9:05PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Mr Blah

Can you provide some clairty the place or product shot is portrayed in the manner it is commonly portrayed;

Does that mean if you have a scene with an iphone and a character uses it as would normally be expected that would be fine? And perhaps an unacceptable use would be to trigger and explosive or something of the sort?

Thanks!

September 1, 2013 at 3:07PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Mike

I think, according to what the author wrote, both of those situations would be okay.
You might annoy Apple a little more with the second example, but you'd also most likely prevail in a court proceeding. Now, whether or not you would be able to afford the prospective legal costs if Apple were to sue you anyway is another question... :-P

September 1, 2013 at 9:10PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Mr Blah

Thx because Im about to shoot something where I must show a phone of some sort and iphones happen to be in abundance around me. The logo wont be shown. We might also have a scene where a vehicle logo or two are seen shown and either we can cover it up or just let it be. Nothing blatant but this is a horror film and there is blood. One thing I learned is that it was difficult to get sponsors because of the film being horror.

September 2, 2013 at 3:10PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Mike

Wow. The brand/logo use info is particularly enlightening. Even in film school we were told that it was a possible violation of copyright and that we should bend over backwards to avoid showing logos and brands. Turns out it isn't. Hmmmm. Yet another reason film school was useless.

September 3, 2013 at 4:50PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Eric

More please! Keep her as a regular contributor. And thanks for what we got!

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September 5, 2013 at 10:45PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Years ago, while reading a book on screenwriting, in particular on pitching a movie, something triggered an idea that challenged me to made me get up and start pitching my idea to the lawn chairs on my porch right then and there. The more I pitched the more I got excited and 'something snapped'. Fortunately no one was around.
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My biggest problem is that I want to be able to commit once I submit and right now my 3 businesses aren't where I can leave them for a prolonged period.
Advice anyone?

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