Law & Courts

Expirations Keep Documentaries Out of Schools

By Andrew Trotter — February 15, 2005 5 min read
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Documentary films that have become classroom classics are running into problems, because their expired rights are preventing schools from obtaining copies.

The most notable example is “Eyes on the Prize,” a 14-part series about the civil rights movement that is a popular offering in many U.S. classrooms, especially during February, when schools across the country formally celebrate African-American history.

“We are very concerned of the impact [of the permissions process] across the board, on education and the ability to educate the public,” said Fred W. Weingarten, the director of the office for information-technology policy at the American Library Association’s Washington office.

No totals are available on how many films’ rights have expired, or how many may soon expire, but the viewing public—including educators—has cause for worry. When rights expire and copies become scarce, as is the case with “Eyes on the Prize,” libraries sometimes refuse to lend their copies, or require that they must be viewed in their own facilities, Mr. Weingarten said.

Many other documentaries that schools use have slipped into dormancy for the same reason—among them film biographies of U.S. presidents, travelogues about far-flung countries and cultures, and ethnographic studies.

Videotapes of the acclaimed “Eyes on the Prize” series are unavailable for purchase—and haven’t been for years. The Public Broadcasting Service has no more copies to sell, and educators who taped the 1987 PBS national television broadcast no longer have permission to use it in the classroom. Instead, educators must go to libraries, which may lend their copies grudgingly, or to the online Web site eBay, where a few copies were auctioned off last week. Winning bids topped $600 for videotapes, and a laserdisc educational version sold for $405.

The main reason the “Eyes on the Prize” videos are no longer produced—and why no DVD version or TV rebroadcast is in the works—is that the permissions or rights that the owner of the documentary purchased for much of the recorded music permeating the series, and for archival newsreel footage of key people and incidents in the civil rights struggle, have expired.

That owner, Blackside Inc., based in Milton, Mass., bought many of those rights for just five years. They must be renegotiated and paid for, including the film of supporters serenading the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. with “Happy Birthday to You,” a copyright song.

National Screen-In

Doug Pepe, 17, a junior at the 1,200-student Ames High School in Ames, Iowa, recently saw “Eyes on the Prize” for the first time and is hosting a screening of the film for local students. “It seems copyright law is running counter to the public interest,” he said.

Downhill Battle, a small nonprofit organization in Worcester, Mass., that wants a radical overhaul of the copyright laws primarily affecting music, recently took up the cause of “Eyes on the Prize.”

“We wanted people to see it, to watch it in a public setting,” said Holmes Wilson, a co-director of Downhill Battle. “We wanted to stimulate discussion about it. The film is an amazing educational resource.”

The group rallied supporters of the film series to organize a nationwide “screen-in” Feb. 8. More than 100 sites—including schools, libraries, and private homes—held public showings of some of the films, according to the group.

Some screen-ins—when a home or school version was made available to the public—were probably illegal, according to Anthony T. Pierce, a lawyer at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, a Washington-based firm that represents Blackside, which made the documentary but does not own pieces of it, such as musical recordings.

In fact, Mr. Pierce took action recently against Downhill Battle, ordering it to “cease and desist” from posting a link from its Web site to an illegal digital version of “Eyes on the Prize” on the Internet that someone was offering as a free download.

The group removed the link, and has backed away from support for unauthorized or illegal copying of the series. But it continued to support the screen-ins.

Mr. Wilson said his group, which promotes legal changes to make renewals easier, is supportive of Blackside if it makes business decisions that help make the film available for sale to the public. “They want to be able to sell it; I wish them the best. It should be on video and store shelves, and people should be able to buy it online,” he said.

Another documentary used in high schools and for teacher training that is on the brink of slipping out of distribution is “The China Trilogy,” a chronicle of 20th-century China that was produced by the New York City-based Ambrica Productions Inc.

Kathryn Dietz is a co-founder of New York City-based Ambrica Productions.

Kathryn Dietz, a co-founder of Ambrica, who lives in Needham, Mass., said the three films were completed in 1997 after a decade of work, many trips to China, and the expenditure of about $3.5 million.

High schools and colleges have used the award-winning series to provide a better understanding of that ascending world power, Ms. Dietz said. It comes with a 16-page teacher’s guide.

But about a year ago, Ms. Dietz had to begin renewing expired rights for the archival materials incorporated in the trilogy.

Renewal of all the rights will cost an estimated $60,000, she said, which the company may only be able to afford by securing grants.

Typically, documentary makers purchase rights for 10 years, and sometimes just five. PBS, a chief broadcast market for documentaries, recently raised its requirement that filmmakers must secure permission rights for at least 10 years, up from seven, to be eligible for video distribution, Ms. Dietz said.

‘Exciting Film Moments’

Though the expiration of rights may clear the way for new films to be made using the same archival materials—as one film distributor noted—that is scant comfort to the filmmakers whose work is shoved aside. Nor is it reassuring to educators who have built lesson plans around documentaries such as “Eyes on the Prize.”

Educators say documentary filmmakers also perform another valuable service in researching—and sometimes simply recognizing—the importance of archival material and bringing it to schools and the public.

The China project brought to light dozens of reels of film taken before China’s Communist revolution that were literally rotting in canisters in a New Jersey archive, Ms. Dietz said.

Her partner in Ambrica, filmmaker Sue Williams, also made a contribution to “Eyes on the Prize” years ago, when she worked as a researcher on the series.

Ms. Williams said that while searching for footage from the civil rights era in a large film archive in New York, she saw an index-card listing with a derisive term for an African-American “talking to camera.”

She decided to cue up the 16-mm film on one of the archive’s editing machines, and discovered it was an interview with Medgar Evers, a Mississippi organizer for the NAACP, who was being filmed the day before he was murdered in 1964.

“It was,” Ms. Williams said, “one of the most exciting film moments of my life.”

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A version of this article appeared in the February 16, 2005 edition of Education Week as Expirations Keep Documentaries Out of Schools


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