Beethoven clears copyright laws. Beyonce does not.

Here at 15 Minutes Max we like to make sure things are done right. From start to finish, the film-making process should be a winding path of inspiration, creativity, passion and impeccable work ethic. Yesterday afternoon the 15 MM planning committee met in the Hearst building at Saint Rose. We had several tasks on our agenda: 1. View the top eleven films; 2. Figure out which three deserve first, second and third places (earning glory and cash prizes); 3. Discuss a new method to execute voting for the coveted Audience Choice Award; 4. Mourn the excellent films disqualified due to copyright infringement.

The festival is not legally obligated to ensure films have cleared copyright. That responsibility falls on the filmmakers. However, 15 MM filmmakers are students and almost the entire committee is composed of teachers, so there is a compulsion to educate rather than simply accept.

“As an educator, I feel a responsibility to the people submitting to the film festival,” said 15 MM coordinator Liz Richards. “We’re really clear in the guidelines that not only does your film have to follow a PG-13 rating system, but you cannot include any material under copyright unless you have explicit written permission.”

We don’t want to continue to cry over genius, clever pieces of art getting the ax before we can show them off at Madison Theater. So, I present to you a quick tutorial. Welcome to Copyright 101.

Often, people confuse “royalty free” and “copyright.” Royalty free (RF) means money has been exchanged for the use of something. Stock images, for example, have been paid for by a website such as Shutterstock. They either paid to have access to the images in perpetuity or for a defined amount of time. Following payment, Shutterstock has the authority to offer those images to us.

With copyright, one must acquire explicit permission from the author/artist/creator to use his or her work. Even if material is cited or quoted, without written permission, it’s a no-no. Filmmakers can be (and have been) sued for incorporating the original work of others (including literary, dramatic, musical, choreographic and audiovisual creations) into their films. Most of the faux-pas we see at 15 MM include music, store signs and logos.

If you remember a few blogs back, we featured Lilly Santacrose and her Guilderland High School Film Club. Their submission, “School Spirit”, had several incidences of copyright infringement. Aside from logos on clothing, Lilly & Co. really had some creative uses of stolen material. They definitely win our unofficial Most Unique Copyright Infringement Award.

Lilly copyright

A still from 15MM submission “School Spirit.” Lilly and the Guilderland HS film club point out a few copyright issues they had during production.


“We used the Law and Order ‘dun dun’ as part of a transition to an interrogation room,” explained Lilly. “Also, part of a character’s death literally has to do with a Frisbee, which is a copyrighted term.”

One of our finalists this year is currently seeking permission from Time Warner Cable for use of their footage in her film. During production, she wasn’t aware of the legalities around it. According to Liz Richards, we will accept work with copyright issues if we see you are at least in the process of obtaining permission. Liz checks all films before distributing them to judges and does not hesitate to reach out and ask, “Do you have permission to use this audio/visual?”

We received an excellent film from an Albany High School student back in May. He used a song under copyright and when presented with the opportunity to change it, realized he couldn’t under the time constraint.

“It’s unfortunate because the film is well produced, well written, it’s acted really well,” said Liz. “Everything about it is strong. It had potential to win the festival.”

There are a couple of safe zones: If you are producing a documentary and a Hannaford sign, for example, shows up in a scene, that is considered incidental. If a character is wearing a jacket with “North Face” embroidered on the front, that is considered incidental. If a car drives through the frame blasting Bey’s “Lemonade,” that is considered incidental. Because documentaries are not scripted and characters are not costumed, copyright laws kind of go out the window. Another caveat is “public domain.” Works that fall under this category are not restricted by copyright. This includes things created before copyright existed (wherefore art thou, Shakespeare) and work that has left the copyright term, meaning the author died at least 70 years ago. Public domain is more complicated than this, but I’m providing a general point of reference. As a filmmaker, you may use Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony freely in your film. The music itself has long left the copyright term. You may not, however, use a recording by a specific group, such as London Philharmonic. Why? Because their recording IS under copyright. The absolute most incredible option? Gather some musicians and make your own music.

“If you’re not sure if you should be using it, don’t use it,” Liz warned. “Do your research. Anybody in the whole world can use some Coldplay song, but that doesn’t make your film stand out. Make something unique.”

Signing off for a chilled seltzer,


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