U.S. regulators have renewed and expanded the law that allows documentary filmmakers to break digital locks and use copyrighted material for criticism and commentary.
On Wednesday (October 28), the U.S. Copyright office extended an exemption in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to allow docmakers to access copyrighted materials protected by controls, such as encryption, from DVDs and digitally transmitted video. The ruling included an expansion of access to include Blu-Ray discs.
Filmmakers are able to use copyrighted materials under fair use, but prior to 2009, the DMCA – which became law in 1998 – made it illegal to rip footage from DVDs, Blu-rays and other digital videos.
As technology evolves and broadcasters and distributors demand higher technical requirements, filmmakers must increasingly find high-definition footage.
“With the DMCA exemption now modified to include Blu-ray discs, the fair use clips in our documentaries can now pass the strict high-definition technical standards of PBS, NBC Universal, CNN, and other broadcasters,” said Jim Morrissette, technical director for Chicago-based Kartemquin Films, in a statement.
“This new rule is an important step toward restoring documentary filmmakers’ fair use rights,” added Jack Lerner, director of the UCI Intellectual Property, Arts, and Technology Clinic. “In the digital age, technological locks present a real threat to freedom of expression.”
Morrissette and Kartemquin founder and artistic director Gordon Quinn (pictured) testified at a Copyright Office hearing in June on behalf of documentary filmmakers, and Lerner and Michael Donaldson of the law firm Donaldson + Callif submitted a final DMCA Exemption Comment in February on behalf of Kartemquin, the International Documentary Association, the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture and the Indie Caucus.
However, lawmakers did not extend exemptions to allow narrative filmmakers to incorporate copyrighted footage into their works, despite a recommendation by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration that said these types of films should be exempted.
“While we are delighted as documentary makers that the DMCA exemption has been expanded to include Blu-Ray, as fair use advocates we are disappointed that the exemptions [were] not granted for fiction,” said Quinn. “You cannot lock away people’s rights to comment on culture based on whether or not they chose to express themselves through a medium of fiction or non-fiction.”
After the DMCA became law, filmmakers and legal advocates argued that the DMCA inadvertently chills fair use, leading the U.S. Congress to direct the Librarian of Congress to issue exemptions every three years.
Read the full ruling here.