Copyright Question: What proof do I need to legally use photos/footage in my documentary

by Naomi
(San Francisco)

Hi, I am aware that there are a lot of websites that contain photos/images that are either in the public domain, or where the authors have given consent that their work can be used freely. If I am to put some of these photos/images in my documentary, what kind of written proof or documentation do I need to provide that I can use them, should I wish to submit my documentary for tv or a film festival? Is there very specific kinds of paperwork I need to provide? Or do I just need to somehow find a way to prove that I can use them..

Thanks Naomi

Answer | Desktop Documentaries

Hi Naomi,

Great question. Everything in your documentary (photos, music, archival footage, artwork, etc) must be cleared to keep you out of legal trouble. You either must own everything outright, have proof it's in the public domain or have written permission from the owner. If you ever want to sell your documentary to distributor or broadcast network TV station, they will require this paperwork.

In limited cases, some items may fall under "Fair Use" allowing you to use copyrighted items without permission. But this is a tricky law, so make sure you fully understand this before moving forward.

In most cases, what you need is a Materials Release Form.

That form is included as one of the 7 "must have" legal forms for documentary filmmakers in the Legal Forms & Contracts Packet put together exclusively for Desktop Documentaries by entertainment attorney Gordon Firemark.

According to Firemark: "Use this form whenever you are including photographs, paintings, sculpture, other artwork, documents or artifacts in your film. Do not use this form for: film clips unless clips are being used without sound and do not include people. Clips including people (whether actors or others) require permission from the people depicted. Likewise, if a clip is taken from a feature film, television program or similar, rights and permissions must be cleared with the screenwriter, music composer, etc."

Forms for all the above scenarios are included in Firemark's Legal Forms & Contracts Pack for Documentary Filmmakers.

In addition, Firemark states:

"Of course, “proof” can take many forms. For example, a family photo would have been owned by the photographer, but if that person’s deceased, then the heirs would own it… So a Will, or a Court order regarding disposition of the estate might be the required proof. But for most situations, a materials release form signed by the owner is the answer. And, if the photo was taken since 1923, it’s unlikely it’d be in the Public Domain… So I don’t know how someone would prove such a thing."

Hope that helps!

Comments for Copyright Question: What proof do I need to legally use photos/footage in my documentary

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Feb 06, 2016
public domain
by: Faith


Yeah, I think that would be enough.

I am not a lawyer, but what I do is simply keep good records of where all the materials for my documentary originated. If you find that certain photos/footage are in the public domain, save the link/documentation and if possible, double check with the entity to confirm you have permission to use it. If anyone questions you on it, lead them to your source (either a printed copy of what you found on a website or an email from the person in charge of the website/entity where you found the image). As long as the images are coming from a reputable source, you should be okay. But ultimately, responsibility falls on you, so use your best judgement and double/triple check everything along the way to make sure you're clear.

(By the way, just heard from attorney Firemark on this issue and a short addendum was added to the original answer above as additional clarification).

Feb 06, 2016
copyright information
by: Naomi

Thanks so much for your response to my question, Thats really helpful. One other question: if I use photos that are in the public domain, what kind of proof would I need to show that they are in the public domain? If for eg. I printed out the website where I got them from, that says they are in the public domain, would that be enough proof? If not, what else could I use?

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