Monday 1 August 2011

07 Is He Dead?

Whenever a new project begins to have legs, Eki and I start thinking about the audio. We look up tunes to find out if the composers are still alive. Or better: how long they have been dead. Or better yet: if the music is in the public domain. Little Margie Productions is lucky because Eki is a musician.  So are a lot of his geek pals. Sometimes we say, let´s try something in of style of… And Eki sits down with his guitar or his drums and fools around with different themes. One thing we´ve done in a couple of documentaries is to use the same tune played in different styles. We did this in “Posh Poor & Middleclass BRITS.”  At the opening “Rule Britannia” (copyright free) is traditional. But then Eki changed the tempo – sometimes jazz, rock and roll, blues, etc - to suit the scene.

Copyrights are a minefield. Making a documentary about a musician is the worst. When I got all star-struck about Esa-Pekka Salonen  (“Chasing Esa-Pekka”), the Finnish composer and, at the time of the shoot, conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic orchestra, we faced two obstacles. One: filming a conductor is daunting because it´s a bore for most viewers to just see him waving his arms around. Two: we knew the rights would be horrendous.

We wanted to use his music throughout and make videos of three of his pieces: Wing on Wing, Foreign Bodies, Insomnia. The first thing we did was call Deutsche Grammophon and told them they had to let us use the CD free of charge. They agreed. But we still had to pay Esa-Pekka 11,000 Euros for composers´rights.  Non-negotiable. And 6,000 Euros to the BBC for 10 year rights to one minute of their archive footage. The total was a big chunk of our budget. In “10 Finnish Architects“ we used archive footage and music from the Finnish Broadcasting company (YLE). They let us use the clips and music free but that meant we owned the rights together. When we found out that some clips we wanted to use in “marihuanaland“ were in the public domain we popped open the beer (Dos Equis XXX) to celebrate. When we can afford it, we pay all the fees and retain all the rights.

Duke University has a Center for the Study of Public Domain. They´ve published (online and in hardback) a comic book about copyrights: Bound by Law? It´s a Must Read for any small independent filmmaker because the tiniest mistakes can get you in a whole peck of trouble. One example from the book: in a key scene a teacher and his students were listening to a song on the car radio. The tune was relevant to the story but had to be deleted. Even though there was money in the budget to pay for the rights, the owners refused to give their permission. If making movies is like a giant jigsaw, copyrights are like white pieces in a white puzzle.

Lesson 13:  Check the domain of every piece of music, clip, photo

Next week: 08 What Should I wear?


  1. Seems like the ball is in the artist's corner these days. It makes it a little more complicated to complete your vision in a film but think of all the song writers and performers from the 40's & 50's that were taken to the cleaners and never saw a red cent for their work.

    Have friend in the theater and her company was doing a piece on stage; Gatz,a reading of the complete Great Gatsby.
    They had trouble with the rights and were not allowed to perform in the states. But things have changed and we are now able to see their work.
    Check it out.

  2. Thanks for the tip. People have made short versions of some of our documentaries and put them on the internet. We figure the more people who see them the better. But we don´t get any revenue.