What legal precautions should I take when filming a documentary?
April 17, 2008 10:23 AM   Subscribe

What legal precautions should I take when filming a documentary?

I'll be shooting a documentary soon and I was wondering if anyone had any insight in respect to the legal ins and outs of capturing someone on film and filming on location (in the United States). Basically, what should I do to cover my ass?

posted by jne1813 to Law & Government (6 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I've worked on documentaries through most phases of production.

When you're interviewing someone, or capturing people on the street, try to get a release form for everyone. Not necessarily everyone in the shot, but certainly anyone who speaks to the camera or who does something other than just standing around. A basic release form grants you the rights to use their images and statements as you see fit, for the sum set out on the form (usually zero, but some high profile sources might want a bit of cash). Our release forms included everything from name to social security number, but that was rarely filled out. At the very least you want a name and email address or phone number so you can reach them. You will need these forms to get Errors and Omissions insurance.

Some people might want more in depth release forms. One person we interviewed wanted a clause in there that he would not be made to appear foolish. If you do capture someone doing something foolish, and you intend to use it, you might want to give them a ring when you're editing. We had one girl drunkenly slurring on a Halifax street, and called her to make sure she was ok with it.

Get a good entertainment lawyer. They will save your ass. We shot a Toronto Maple Leafs practice with full NHL approval, then later they demanded $3000 per 15 seconds of footage used because of very tiny team and league logos visible on the players helmets. We were freaked out for a while, but one call from our lawyer and that problem went away.

The lawyer would be most concerned with the people who have the money to sue you and make a big deal about us. We had a still frame of Madonna in one of our edits, and paid rights to the photographer, but not image rights to Madonna, so he made us take it out.

If you have any other questions feel free to post them here or memail me. I'm no expert, but I do have some experience in this area.
posted by yellowbinder at 11:03 AM on April 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

This might be helpful:
posted by sully75 at 11:09 AM on April 17, 2008

"Basically, what should I do to cover my ass?"

Basically, what you should do is hire a lawyer and stop asking strangers on the internet for legal advice.
posted by toomuchpete at 2:19 PM on April 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Yes. I emphasize again, get a good entertainment lawyer. Do it now to sound out any issues you might encounter. Better to do that then end up with some amazing footage that you can't use, or get sued for many times the entire budget of your doc. I have heard horror stories.
posted by yellowbinder at 4:02 PM on April 17, 2008

Some useful information about fair use and documentary film can be found here.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 12:05 AM on April 18, 2008

This isn't about covering your ass where signed releases are concerned, but make sure anything you agree to with your partners on the film is spelled out, agreed to, and signed.

Actually, the experience that prompted my reply to your post did involve signed releases, partly. I was producer on a documentary shot in a prison. Not surprisingly, we were required to agree, in writing, to tons of security precautions, including agreeing not to release the documentary through a commercial distributor (though educational and festival screenings were OK) and blurring the faces of all inmates who did not sign a release form.

I had my misgivings about the integrity of the director/interviewer from the beginning, and to make a long story short, by the time we were editing I decided to relinquish my credit as producer. The problem was, my signature was on all the agreements we had made with the prison, and I was moving across the country as the film was going to final sound mix.

The only thing left to do after final mix (the last time I ever saw the physical cut of the film) the blurring of the faces. Since I had grown to distrust the director, I drew up a form that we both signed in front of witnesses. It stated that I relinquished all control of the film at that point, and that all responsibility from the for the master print (with specific reference to face-blurring) lay with the director.

A few months later, I saw our film in a commercial catalog. When I Googled our film, I found a trailer for it on YouTube, with no faces blurred (and I knew for a fact that we had no releases from many of the inmates pictured).

IANAL, and I don't know how well our agreement would hold up in a lawsuit (I guess this is another vote for getting an attorney!), but knowing we signed that agreement makes me feel much better about the situation. Just a cautionary tale to remind you that your doc's creators can cause as many problems as its subjects.

Good luck with your film.
posted by Rykey at 4:56 PM on April 18, 2008

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