Money, money, money!
Many development film-makers like to decry our society’s obsession with money, consumerism and greed. Some would make films that passionately promote sharing ideas and resources at community level, and advocate common property resources over private ownership.
But when it comes to rights of their own film/s, these very film-makers would become extremely possessive: they want to restrict it in every conceivable way.
They feel justified in such sentiment and action: after all, they have invested a great deal of time, effort, creativity and hard-won resoures to make their films. They must now seek a ‘return on investment’ like everyone else (it’s a material world!). Film-makers too have families to feed.
No argument on that last one. But it would be interesting to find out how many – or how few – development films deliver any appreciable ‘returns on investment’ to their makers. Certainly in developing Asia, development film-makers will be seriously endangered species if they had to rely on license fees or royalties for their survival.
After a dozen years of extensive networking with environment, wildlife and development film-makers across Asia Pacific, I have yet to come across a single film-maker who made his or her million dollars from a film.
Yet, many continue to cling on to the traditional notion of copyright in film, perhaps hoping that sooner or later, that cherished million bucks would come calling.
And in the meantime, they continue to approach every known funding source – and many unknown and unlikely ones – for supporting their next film. At TVE Asia Pacific, we receive our fair share of these requests every month – and we are not even a funding source for independent films! These requests are accompanied by impressive CVs or filmographies, listing past films produced.
Produced, yes. But how many are circulating? How many have been seen outside film festival circuits, or beyond a one-off broadcast (or two)? How many films are available for educational, advocacy, training or activist purposes at affordable cost of duplication and dispatch?
The answer is depressing: precious few.
Because our film-makers are waiting for their million dollar deal or sale, and won’t let go of their creations. Even if many have been made using development donor (i.e. public) funding, these films are not in the public domain.
That, to me, is incongruent with the lofty ideals that many development films proclaim: sharing ideas and resources at community level, and advocating common property resources.
We have to walk our talk, or we risk joining the already burgeoning ranks of hypocrites in our societies.
The time has come for documentary film-makers, especially those covering development topics, to take a fresh look at copyright. That doesn’t mean abandoning all our rights to be known and acknowledged as creators of our films.
For a start, I strongly recommend an interesting and insightful essay, “Shoot, Share and Create: Looking beyond copyright makes sense in film“, written by a young Indian lawyer-activist specialising in intellectual property. Lawrence Liang is a Bangalore-based lawyer who works at the Alternative Law Forum. I had the opportunity of meeting the dynamic and articulate Lawrence at the Asia Commons meeting in Bangkok in June 2005 – he’s certainly a man to watch in this rapidly evolving field of managing our digital commons and how to safeguard the public interest in the bewildering era of digital media.
Here’s how he starts his essay, which he wrote as an open letter addressed to Indian documentary filmmakers:
When I was in law school, I had great aspirations of wanting to be a filmmaker, and an FTII-type (Film and TV Institute of India, a prominent school for film-making) friend told me the best place to start was to watch a lot of foreign films and documentaries. So I did that rather dutifully and spent many hours when I should have been reading corporate law, watching documentaries.
My fondest memory of my placement in Mumbai with a law firm was when we took off to the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) and watched Anjali Monteiro and K P Jayashankar’s film on the Yerawada prison in Pune.
I gave up on the idea of becoming a filmmaker after we finally did do a documentary on law school. But by then the bug had bitten and I had fallen in love with cinema and the documentary form as well. I think watching documentaries has also made me a better lawyer than I would have been if I read Ramiaya on the Indian Companies Act. So if I have written this rather longish argument about why documentary filmmakers should start thinking about open content licenses, it is with a sense of repaying a debt.
Read the full essay at Alternative Law Forum website
Read my own call for recognising poverty as a copyright free zone