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A Struggle for Rights

The report maintains that the difficulties have grown "as media consolidation has also consolidated control over film and photo archives." Conglomerates have collected archival footage and songs in "mega-shops," which are sometimes less willing to negotiate prices with filmmakers who contend they are creating for a good cause.

On the other side of the issue are those who say it's important that artists, singers and creators be paid for the use of their work. "The real telling point is, it has become unfortunate in our culture that we are not putting enough funding into documentary films in the first place," says Bert Sugayan, vice president to rights services for Getty Images, which manages millions of photos and illustrations, and thousands of hours of historical footage.

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)

After all, he says, "there are creators, artists who have copyrights to creative expression, be it a film clip or a song, who expect to be compensated for their creative expression just like the documentary filmmaker who needs to be paid."

Patricia Aufderheide, a professor of communications at American University and director of the Center for Social Media, agrees that artists should be paid, but "there are some circumstances where the value to society [of] taking something without paying the person is high enough to make it worthwhile. Some of that is satire, parody, cultural criticism. Other cases have historical value, for example, the footage of JFK being shot."

Aufderheide -- who co-authored the report with Peter Jaszi, a professor of law at American University -- says some important documentaries are being held "hostage." " 'Eyes on the Prize' is a really good example of how confusing and expensive the world of copyright clearance affects our cultural legacy," she says. "Renewing the rights will be very expensive, very time-consuming, and will cost more than half a million dollars."

Nina Gilden Seavey, director of the documentary center at George Washington University, says: "Usually, it's not a problem -- nobody notices if a film disappears because it is out of license. But 'Eyes on the Prize' was so seminal, it is more obvious."

Jon Else, a co-producer and cinematographer for "Eyes on the Prize," says: "In essence every documentary that contains any archival footage or music, there is a time bomb. With 'Eyes on the Prize' and other films I worked on, they are extremely hard to raise money for. When they get made, they are underfunded. . . . Because we are generally short of funds, we buy a minimum period of license, usually for five years."

Hampton, the executive producer of "Eyes on the Prize," died of lung cancer in 1998, and Blackside eventually stopped making films. In a 1993 interview, Hampton said he sought to show a different side of the civil rights movement: "A hundred civil rights stories had been told, but it was always black people being saved by whites. In 'Eyes,' we brought our people up in history."

But even as Hampton tried to capture the movement, he met resistance from those who were part of it.

They, too, want to be paid. In 1992 Hampton received a letter from King's estate accusing Hampton of using images of King without permission. News reports said Hampton offered $100,000 and was turned down because the estate wanted more money and control over the material. Blackside sued, saying the demands hampered Blackside's right to free speech. They eventually settled out of court.

But the problem of rights to images continued to be an issue with the documentary.

"It was after Henry's untimely death that the rights expired for 'Eyes on the Prize,' " says Dante James, an independent filmmaker who produced films at Blackside. "And for whatever reason, the people who were in control of the company and in control of the series did not renew the rights and the rights expired. Predominantly it was costs. . . . Had Henry still been alive, I'm sure the rights would have been cleared." When Hampton died, he left Blackside to his sisters, Veva Zimmerman and Judi Hampton. Tobias Zimmerman, whose mother is a co-owner, says Blackside is no longer producing documentaries. The company, based in Boston, still owns the rights to "Eyes on the Prize."

Six months ago, the nonprofit Ford Foundation gave a $65,000 grant to Filmmakers Collaborative, an organization of documentary filmmakers, to research how much it would cost to renew footage rights for "Eyes." Sandy Forman, a lawyer for Blackside, says the group will submit a report on the costs at the end of the month.

"We are trying to acquire rights in perpetuity," says Forman. "Our ultimate goal is to keep the series in front of the public in perpetuity."

Potomac Landing Community Center has scheduled a free showing of part of "Eyes on the Prize" for ages 8 to 12 at 7 p.m. today. The center is at 12500 Fort Washington Rd., Fort Washington. Call 301-292-9191.

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