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Documentary star denied share in film profits

1 October 2004

2004 will be marked as the year that documentary films such as Super Size Me grabbed the limelight, but in a small Paris courtroom an intellectual property battle has just been won to protect the integrity of the documentary film-making tradition.

Etre et Avoir centres on the story of George Lopez, a teacher based in rural France whose teaching methods are celebrated in the movie’s depiction of everyday life in the classroom. The Guardian  reports that Lopez agreed to let his tiny class be filmed at work and play for a whole year. Upon release, the project became a surprise sensation, with a Cannes nomination and profits of over £1.3 million.

Lopez insisted he was owed 10% of the cash since the film’s quality depended on his teaching methods and personality - in short, what he asserted to be a contribution of his own intellectual property. But the claim caused consternation in the film-making community, with many feeling that a payment to Lopez would set a precedent that would change the integrity of documentary films, which never pay their subjects for fear of biasing their attempts at revealing the ‘truth’.

A court in Paris ruled that Mr Lopez deserved no payment for taking part in the project. In a judgment which analysed the very nature of a documentary film, the court decided that the teacher had no grounds to argue that he should be treated as an actor because he was filmed as he went about his everyday professional duties.

The court also found he had given consent for his image to be exploited in accepting to be filmed. Mr Lopez could not be considered a "co-author" of the film because he had not taken part in decisions on how to shoot the documentary.

"The film revealed the great professional skill of the teacher, his thoughts on his profession and the effectiveness of his teaching methods," the court ruled, but none of these were "qualities that could be protected by intellectual property legislation."

French film-making unions were pleased by the verdict. The Association of French Film-makers said: "The nature and the economics of documentary are incompatible with any principle of remuneration."

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