Best Practices to Copyright Law for Videos, Film and TV


By Michelle De Long

When it comes to good Video, Film or TV set practices, industry professionals are always on the lookout to make sure that unlicensed artwork doesn't appear in the shot or that music playing in the background is turned off. But what do you do when asked by a client to use a piece of art without permission or to use clips from a video taken off youtube without permission of the copyright holder?

As TV and Video production professionals it is our job to take clients through the journey of making awesome video as easily and pleasantly as possible. And part of that, is the making clear the legality that comes with media. It can be a tricky situation at times to have to be the bearer of bad news that you will not be able to use the latest hit from Lady Gaga or Kanye West in a corporate motivational video, commercial or web video without a license. So we make sure for clients new to the video game, that we explain the ins and outs of the legal side of TV, Video and Film Productions.

Here are best practices for copyright law that should be followed in every production.

  • Most artwork must be removed from the shot or a license obtained. Just because a piece of art has been bought does not mean that the artist gave the purchaser reproduction rights. There have been many lawsuits filed by artists who see their artwork in a video or on TV, so it's just better to be safe than sorry. Tracking down an artist, negotiating a fee and getting a release may be cost prohibitive for a lot of corporate, non-fiction TV and commercial shoots. But if the artwork is in the public domain then there is no need for a release.

    The tricky and time consuming part is figuring out if a piece is in the public domain or not. Instead take the piece of artwork down or move the camera angle. We love shooting with windows in the background, nature is free!

  • All music must be licensed. While it's tempting; downloading a piece of popular music and using it in a video without permission is copyright infringement. Youtube is full of these infringement cases and they have setup an automated algorithm to catch offenders. Your video will be flagged and if you cannot prove you have a license for a song, they may just let it go, but do it more than a couple of times and you may be blocked from uploading more videos.

    To solve this, we have purchased and maintain a royalty free music library where we pay a one time fee for a piece of music and we are allowed to use it anywhere over and over again. In fact this niche industry operates with popular music in mind. Composers create songs that have a similar sound or beat to popular music. So if a client wants a specific song I bet we can find a piece of music that sounds similar in our Royalty Free Library. But obtaining a license for a Lady Gaga song? Not a chance unless you have a lot of cash. And some artists have in their contracts with record labels that their music may not be used for commercial purposes.

    To prevent accidental recording of music while we are filming with sound at locations, we make sure to turn off all music if possible. This can prove to be difficult in the case of a shopping mall or hotel lobby, but we make sure to do it.

    And in the case of a music that was created before copyrights existed, like Mozart or Beethoven, the arrangement and the orchestration of the music is copyrighted and therefore cannot be used either without obtaining rights or a license.

  • All photographs and videos must be licensed. As tempting as it is to download a photo or take footage from someone else's video and use it, this is also a big no, no. There are plenty of stock image and stock footage sites that have all sorts of great looking images and footage. Stock images start around three to four dollars per image. Stock footage starts at 50 dollars for HD. So if a client really needs a great shot of a mountain? Bet we can find it on a stock footage site.
  • All video or film of exterior buildings does need to be licensed
  • While we do need to obtain a property release that legally allows our production company access to the inside of a building or office and permission to film there, we do not need to obtain a license to stand on a public way and film a building that is clearly visible on the public way. (In the case of filming at a client's location, we typically don't worry about a property release unless there needs to be some type of access obtained from the overall building management)

    There has been some confusion in the industry about exterior shots of buildings because buildings erected after December of 1990 have copyright protection, but in this case there is a photographer's exception that allows photos or video to be taken of a building as long as the videographer or photographer is standing on the public way, meaning the sidewalk and the building is visible from the public way. But where it gets tricky is singling out a building for reasons of making an audience think there is a connection to a product or company and the building, like showing the John Hancock building in a John Hancock Insurance video. That falls under trademark law.

We take copyright infringement seriously and only want the best possible success for our clients, because if you violate copyright law, chances are you will just have to make your video over again.

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