Own-it | Intellectual Property Know-How for Creative Businesses


I work in film – what do I need to know about copyright?

Published 01.11.08 at 09:30

Copyright is a bundle of rights attached to ownership of the copyright work. In the context of film, the most important rights in the film include the right to:

  • reproduce the film: this means copying in different formats including film, DVD, video and photography, etc
  • adapt the film: for example, turn its contents into a book
  • perform the film in public, for example, cinema screenings
  • broadcast the film, for example, on terrestrial and satellite television
  • make the film available on the internet (some recent films have been simultaneously released both at the cinema and on pay download websites)
  • receive rental income from the hiring of copies of the film to the public.

Copyright law protects as 'film works' any form of recording from which moving images can be produced, including celluloid films, cartoons, television programs and video recordings.

It is the exploitation of these rights in different media from cinema, television, DVD and online, and across different territories that generates the potentially massive revenues of the film industry. The copyright owner in the film, generally the production company, will negotiate with distribution and television companies in different territories (see below) to either licence or assign the above rights.

Unlike other types of copyright works (for example, artistic works) film works do not have to be original. For example, a CCTV security recording will be protected alongside a famous Hollywood film. If you copy the whole or a substantial part of a film recording you will infringe the copyright in the film.

As well as copyright in the recording of the film, there is usually copyright in the film's content, for example, literary copyright in the film's dialogue or musical copyright in the film's soundtrack (which is treated as part of the film). The film's content can be infringed by being reproduced without copying the physical recording of the film.

Practical steps: If you are an independent production company it is advisable to either appoint an agent or consult PACT to negotiate the licensing/assignment of your copyright in the film on your behalf. This applies both to helping secure development agreements with financiers and also to negotiating with distributors.

Duration: Copyright in film lasts 70 years from the death of the last person of the following to die:

  • the film's principal director
  • the author of the screenplay
  • the author of the dialogue
  • the composer of any specially commissioned music.

If the identity of these persons is unknown the length of protection is 70 years from when the film was made or from when the film was made first available to the public.

Ownership: producer/director

The film's director and producer (eg the film studio) are treated as joint authors under UK copyright law and therefore as joint owners of copyright in the film. (Note: the film's producer is the person/organisation who makes the necessary arrangements for the production of the film.)

In practice, however, copyright ownership in film is strongly influenced by the film's type of production. Artists and independent film directors may produce the film or be able to rely on co-authorship rights with a small-scale production company. However, in a larger commercial context, the film's production company (and its backing financiers) will insist upon assignment of the director's copyright to the production company at the development stage (see below).

Practical steps: Try and hang onto your copyright if you are the film's director and at least ensure that you are properly compensated for its assignment to the production company.

Go to the Film & TV section of contracts and purchase the Agreement for director and the Agreement for producer.

Content supplied by Daniel McClean, solicitor at Withers LLP. Photo credit: Pedrosimoes7


Please note that this article discusses the legal position in the UK at the time of publication. It provides general information only but is not to be regarded as legal advice. You must take advice from a specialist lawyer in relation to your specific circumstances. Further, you should seek additional legal advice when dealing with parties based in other parts of the world or works originating from other parts of the world as the legal position may vary.


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