(this page is part of the Family Guide to Digital Freedom, 2007 edition. Please do read that introduction to know more about the Guide, especially if you mean to comment this page. Thanks)

Can I publish My Own Movies?

All modern camcorders directly save movies in digital formats. Even old VHS tapes can be easily digitized at home with relatively cheap living-room DVD recorders or computers. All this makes it very easy to mix any combination of home made or commercial movies for pure and innocent fun. Theoretically, that is.

You have already learned in another chapter that, should the recording of your Christmas home dinner include your kids singing some copyrighted song or watching some Disney movie, you may have to ask permission and (if you’re lucky) pay loads of money for it to be sure you won’t be sued. All this is so ridiculous that the temptation to just laugh at it and forget the whole issue is, understandably, very strong. Before going on with your life, however, please consider the following things.

First of all, even if the probability that it could happen to you is (still) very remote, there are lots of very real and expensive lawsuits of this kind going on right now. In the second place, if nothing happens soon, the next generation of home entertainment devices may very well be able to take this innocent fun away without any need for anybody to throw one single policeman or lawyer at the problem.

The most important problem, however, is that “home movie” and, in general, “home project” can be terribly generic terms.

Regardless of how people in the street personally consider it, until the law says so, very common practices like the ones described here and in the previous chapters are copyright violations and copyright violation is a crime: this is just a technical/legal definition, not a moral judgment. In this context, there is a very important reason why most people can keep committing this crime or, more exactly, wrongly believe that they can afford to let things be as they are today. The reason is that they are only considering their own home movies, that is things that, quite frankly, there is no real, serious reason to publish at all.

In spite of the recent popularity of sharing websites for personal video clips, almost all of the authors of “home made” video will never have any objective interest or (financial) need at all to ever publish their work. Consequently, the actual chances of being caught for an illegal, but never-released home movie could still be small enough to be acceptable. As far as the rest of humankind is concerned, not to mention your relatives and friends… they can probably survive without ever knowing from the Internet what you had for dinner last Christmas, or which songs your children sang at their last school show.

So, if this were all the story, it would be still ridiculous and unjust in principle, but there would be no real damage to you or society as a whole. The problem is that some masterpieces and civil campaigns, that is things that it is necessary to publish for the common good, start just like that, as “home projects”. If legislation and technology make those things much more difficult to do without lots of money or lawyers, now that’s a surely bad thing, isn’t it?

For the record, this is just what is already happening, with even more harmful consequences for education, with documentaries. According to the New York Times, in 2005 two film-makers were filming a fourth-grader child and his mother when the mother’s cellphone rang. That was a disaster: since the ringtone was “Gonna Fly Now,” the theme from the first Rocky movie, the copyright owner (which is not the actual author of that music) asked the first-time producer for 10,000 US dollars to publish those six seconds of documentary without the fear of legal suits. Eventually, they settled for 2,500 dollars (for six seconds of music included in the shot by pure chance…), but the total clearance fees, for the same reason, of the whole documentary, amounted to about one hundred and seventy thousands dollars! Eventually, the “Mad Hot Ballroom” documentary saw the light only “by limiting music played in classrooms, haggling over clearance fees, and cutting out a scene.”

As an Internet user put it “Considering the (USA) constitutional mandate to promote the progress of the useful arts and sciences, it is tragically ironic that copyright law keeps many documentaries from getting produced and drains the life out of others.”

This is the real reason why everybody should be upset if “home movies” cannot contain anything which already exists, and why all parents should immediately start asking for a serious reform of the relevant laws. Education, preservation of our culture, the next documentary from some unknown, shoestring budget director that denounces some serious problem or civil rights violation: all this could never happen if, for every single scene of their movies, authors had to spent huge amounts of time and money just to get permissions which may never arrive anyway.

Which way did you do that movie?

Besides the copyright madness issue, that is regardless of what you put in a movie, you must know that you are also required to be ridiculously cautious when you use some of these latest digital entertainment technologies. If the thought of publishing your amateur masterpiece ever came to your mind, the freedom of actually and fully using all these wonders of digital technology may be restricted to those with deep enough pockets.

More exactly, if you aren’t careful you may find out that you would have to pay royalties even to publish your original movies on your own website for profit. This is exactly what can happen if you chose for your movie files the MPEG4 format. The only safe way to avoid this danger is to use other formats and technologies, already available, which are free of these legal time bombs.