Public funds, private rights: Big mismatch in Development film making

After over a decade of extensive networking with environment, wildlife and development film-makers across the Asia Pacific, I have yet to come across a single film-maker who had a ‘sufficient’ budget to make their films or TV programmes.

All the film-makers I know — and that’s several dozen — wish they had a bigger budget to do a better film. At an individual professional’s level, that’s perfectly fine. But collectively, there just isn’t enough money to go around.

And to make matters worse, the number of film-makers keeps growing faster than how available funds expand. In fact, in real terms, the volume of funding to make development films has been shrinking. That’s another story.

In most parts of developing Asia, broadcasters don’t invest much — or any — funds in productions of development films. So independent film-makers, and sometimes even producers within TV stations, have to raise that money from elsewhere.

They turn to development donors, UN agencies, philanthropic foundations, corporate sponsors and even private individuals. They have to beg, borrow – but hopefully, not steal – to create content that is of public interest and educational value.

It’s a constant struggle, but when we get things right, the social benefits can be high.

But there’s one aspect in this whole endeavour that has not received sufficient attention for too long: what happens to the copyrights of such creations?

Development donors manage funds that have originally come from tax payers in industrialised countries — in other words, public funds. When public funds are invested in creating what are meant to be public goods, such goods must remain available and accessible without restriction.

But that’s where things often go wrong.

Public (donor) funds are used to finance the production of development films, yet neither their funders nor commissioners clarify the rights situation to ensure the widest possible public access to the film/s. An individual film-maker or production company takes advantage of this lack of clarity to appropriate the sole copyright, and starts restricting public access to the film/s by locking into exclusive arrangements.

The very purpose of investing public/donor funds in the film’s production is thus defeated.

I have seen this scenario repeat dozens of times across Asia and elsewhere. Usually it involves development donor officials or UN agencies whose media knowledge is rather limited, and whose commitment to the public domain is not always sincere.

It is a contradiction to have full control of copyrights vested in private individuals when films or TV programmes have been fully funded using public funds. To the best of my understand of the public interest, that is just not right.

This is why I keep raising it at every available opportunity. At Asia Media Summit in Kuala Lumpur yesterday, I touched on this in my speech during the panel on ‘mobilising airwaves against poverty’. I said:


I call upon development donors to insist that all development films and other media products they finance -– with tax-payer money – will have no copyright restrictions attached.

I hope the UN agencies will also take note. Perhaps inadvertently, they often get locked into exclusive rights arrangements with single production companies or broadcasters. This should be avoided.

I am proud to announce that all international TV content produced by TVE Asia Pacific is available to broadcast, civil society and educational users anywhere in the world without any license fees or copyright restrictions. We do practise what we preach.

And let us all consider alternative approaches to managing intellectual property — such as the Creative Commons framework now gaining acceptance.

In my virew, there are at least four possible options for handling the rights of a publicly-funded film or other media product:

1. Keep the rights entirely unrestricted (copyleft), allowing unlimited commercial and non-commercial uses of the work.

2. Share the rights equally between the film-maker and the party commissioning (and financing) the film, so that both parties may pursue distribution and promotion in ways they think fit, keeping each other informed if need be, but not having to seek each other’s permission for it.

3. Reserving all rights in the party commissioning (and financing) the film, leaving none of it to the film-maker.

4. Conceding all rights to the film-maker, allowing him/her the full discretion and choice on how rights are managed (or restricted). This is as good as sending the film into a ‘black hole’ from which it may never emerge again.

We don’t advocate option 3, because we respect the right of creative professionals to be acknowledged for their work, and to share the intellectual property (many UN agencies do this, and we don’t think that is healthy or warranted).

We have been applying option 2 in all content we commission from TVE Asia Pacific, and are now actively considering option 1 as well. This is because all our films are made using public (donor), foundation or corporate funds given to us in trust. That must be reflected in the rights regime we apply on the products.

And we never allow ourselves to get locked into a single broadcaster’s copyrights regime.

This is clearly a debate that must gain momentum.

Investing public funds to create privately-held copyrights is just not right.

Photo courtesy Justine Chew, GKPS

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