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A Struggle for Rights

'Eyes on the Prize' Mired in Money Battle

By DeNeen L. Brown and Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, January 17, 2005; Page C01

Rep. John Lewis remembers the heads cracking, the horses trampling, the faces of state troopers.

They told the civil rights marchers they had three minutes to clear the bridge. A minute and a half later, they began beating the marchers with bullwhips and nightsticks that day in 1965 on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.


Many people may never see "Eyes on the Prize" because of copyright issues with photos used in the film, such as this one of the March on Washington. (Library Of Congress)

The Georgia congressman remembers the freedom rides, the sit-ins, the coffee poured on his head as he looked straight ahead, not fighting back. Remembers the firebombing of the houses of those who tried to register to vote. The lynchings, strange fruit, people hanging from trees. The for-colored-only signs, the cigarettes put out on his head, the spit dribbling down his face as white boys told the "colored" protesters to get out.

Remembers his parents telling him that was just the way it was. "Don't get in the way." Remembers getting hit in the head with police sticks, and seeing death.

Many of these images of the black freedom struggle were captured in the award-winning 1987 documentary series "Eyes on the Prize," which portrayed the civil rights movement and the heroic efforts of Martin Luther King Jr.

What scares Lewis now is that a new generation of people who know little or nothing about what it took for black people to get this far in this country -- with rights to vote, rights to attend the same schools as whites, rights to live in the same neighborhoods, ride the same trains, buses, work in the same places -- may not be able to see the film.

Yes, there are books and photographs about the struggle. But those alone can't tell the story the way "Eyes on the Prize" did, Lewis says. The series is no longer available in stores and can't be shown on television or released on DVD until the filmmakers are able to renew the expired rights to footage, photos and music that were used. Old sets of VHS tapes owned by community centers and schools are wearing out. Teachers and librarians seeking new copies can't purchase them, except for rare ones being sold on eBay for as much as $1,500.

The film is hampered by the same problem many documentary filmmakers are encountering as they wrestle with buying and renewing licenses to use copyrighted archival footage, photos and music. Independent filmmakers must pay for each piece of copyrighted material, and those costs have escalated in the past 10 years.

Some of the footage in "Eyes" was cleared for only five years, and the executive producer died before renewing the rights. "Eyes on the Prize," which was produced by Blackside Inc., a film and television company founded by Henry Hampton, won 23 awards, including two Emmys, for outstanding documentary and for outstanding achievement in writing. The first six parts aired in 1987. It was last broadcast on PBS in 1994. Many of the rights in the eight-part sequel, "Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads (1965-1985)," expired five years after it aired in 1990.

" 'Eyes on the Prize' is one of the most effective documentaries ever put together that dealt with civic engagement," says civil rights leader Lawrence Guyot, who led the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and today is a program manager for the D.C. Department of Human Services. "This is analogous to stopping the circulation of all the books about Martin Luther King, stopping the circulation of all the books about Malcolm X, stopping the circulation of books about the founding of America.

"I would call upon everyone who has access to 'Eyes on the Prize' to openly violate any and all laws regarding its showing."

In November, the Center for Social Media at American University released a report highlighting the problems that documentary filmmakers have as they try to clear rights to images. The report, which recommends finding ways to lower costs for obtaining rights, says current interpretations of copyright law "leads to a creative stranglehold."

"Filmmakers must pay a license to use a pop song that may play in the background [of footage shot] in a pizza parlor, an image or sequence from a movie, or from archival footage owned by someone else," the report says. "They may need to pay not only songwriters but performers, not only movie studios but actors. There is no central place to find out who owns what. There is no rule of thumb for pricing. No one has to agree to license. And it doesn't matter if you didn't intend to quote it. Did somebody sing 'Happy Birthday' in your documentary? Too bad -- you owe Time Warner a small fortune.

"A system that has a logic -- it's fair to pay others to use their work -- is spinning out of control."


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