Documentary filmmakers hopeful for DMCA exemption
By Gautham Nagesh
Documentary filmmakers are hoping the U.S. Copyright Office will soon grant them a fair use exemption from a law that bans copying content from commercial DVDs.
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) makes it illegal for anyone to bypass the security measures on a commercial DVD to download or copy the content. That presents a problem for documentary filmmakers who want to make legal use of the content, according to entertainment attorney Michael Donaldson.
“For most people [the law presents] no problem. But if you’re making documentary and want to get at public domain material on a DVD, you can’t do it,” Donaldson said. “Since most documentaries use material they obtain from something else, that becomes a huge, huge impediment.”
Donaldson said copying content from other DVDs is the best way for most documentary filmmakers, who must otherwise record video from television or download it from the Internet. He said the degraded quality of material copied in that manner may not meet broadcast standards for television, where most documentaries are screened.
“If you want to use material pursuant to fair use, you have to commit crime despite your constitutional right to do so,” Donaldson said. There is a mechanism in the law allowing groups to apply for an exemption, which Donaldson did on behalf of the International Documentary Association last October. He said filmmakers are waiting on the U.S. Copyright Office to issue its ruling, some holding back release of their documentaries until the legal questions are resolved. “It’s been a really long time as far as the community of filmmakers is concerned — some are holding up finishing films because they need to get materials,” Donaldson said, adding that filmmakers face a choice between an inferior way of getting content and getting it from DVDs, which is ideal but also illegal.