Producing a film is an inherently risky proposition: you are relying on a small army of creative individuals to collaboratively create a single, coherent, and engaging visual story. There are many opportunities for that complex process to go wrong, costing the production company time and money or, ultimately, causing you to end up without a film.
The last thing filmmakers need is to take on additional risk, especially the threat of a film lawsuit.
And yet, many filmmakers add to the likelihood that they’ll end up in court. Whether it’s due to a lack of research, ignorance about copyright or trademark protections, or simple oversight, these films could end up costing their producers more than headache and frustration.
Here are five ways filmmakers add risk to their projects, and how that risk can be avoided.
1. Repurposing Ideas
The concepts associated with your film—the plot, characters, and themes—are the heart of your story. If your film’s concepts are derived from an existing work, the entire film could be in trouble.
This may seem like a no-brainer, and yet many films run into exactly this kind of problem, which generally results in a copyright infringement film lawsuit.
In many cases, the copyright infringement may seem a bit obvious, such as creating a mashup of existing content or repurposing copyrighted images in new art. Even fan films, where the story is original, often run afoul of copyright laws by using protected worlds and characters.
Less obvious are the times when your film shares concepts with an existing work. Time travel stories, for example, may not be copyrighted outright but can share enough ideas with someone else’s work, and you could find yourself in court.
It can be difficult to tell where that line is, or even whether source materials are copyrighted or in the public domain. Your best protection is getting a legal analysis of your story at the outset with a script clearance report.
2. Not Verifying Script and Music Sources
Films can also run into copyright infringement film lawsuits with original material, especially with the script and music.
Many filmmakers wrongly assume that original material created specifically for their work is automatically in the clear. Not so. There’s an entire legal process of paperwork involved, which is called the Chain of Title.
Maintaining a proper Chain of Title, and the legal protection it affords, is critical to ensure your film is in the clear. And yet, it’s a difficult process to maintain, even by big production studios. Consider how many box office hits have had to defend their films in court (including Django Unchained for the story and 12 Years a Slave over the music).
Even once you’re in the clear for the story and music, you could still find yourself in court over the credits.
Experienced filmmakers and studios reduce their risk for these types of lawsuits with legal analysis and opinions. A Chain of Title Opinion checks the validity and thoroughness of your original material, helping you avoid the courtroom.
3. Lack of Permission for Props and Location
Sometimes even the most deliberate and careful filmmaker can find themselves in legal hot water over copyright infringement.
Your props and locations are two areas where a film lawsuit can come forward from the background.
These lawsuits typically stem from the fact that copyrighted material is being shown, and the filmmaker didn’t have the rights to that material. Even though you may have a location release, that permission doesn’t cover other copyrighted material that exists at the location.
The most obvious example of this is at museums. While the museum can grant you permission to film in their facility, the artwork on the walls is copyrighted independently.
How and when you need to get independent releases can be tricky. Some of these issues are playing out now in the courts, especially in the video game market. The lessons of those lawsuits also apply to filmmakers, especially when utilizing digital effects in post-production.
You can avoid these issues with a Script Clearance Report at the outset of your project, and then a Clearance Review of your final film.
4. Not Communicating with Involved Parties
Documentary filmmakers also face legal challenges (including the inadvertent inclusion of copyrighted or trademarked material). However, the documentarian often faces an additional risk for a film lawsuit, especially when covering controversial material: defamation.
Filmmakers often find themselves defending their final cut because they didn’t communicate well from the outset. People on the street may be enthusiastic about being a part of your film, but they will also sue you if they believe you misrepresented yourself or them.
You can put protections in place for your film, even while covering difficult topics. This includes ensuring your subjects understand the nature and intent of your film, and also having iron-clad release forms for them to sign.
It’s also important to note that you’re not protected from a lawsuit simply because the subject in question is dead. And learn from Katie Couric that what you leave out of your film can be as important as what’s included.
Narrative films aren’t immune to defamation lawsuits, either, especially when the story is based on real events.
In short, you can’t underestimate the importance of communication with your film subjects so you can take steps to avoid lawsuits before the film is released.
5. Lack of Film Title Research
Before you can release your film, you have to play the “name game.” Finding a suitable title involves a fair amount of creativity, some marketing savvy, and thorough legal analysis. Thorough research can mean the difference between a popular title and a film lawsuit.
Searching IMDB isn’t sufficient due diligence when it comes to selecting your title. Trademarks from outside the entertainment industry are still protected, and you can quickly find yourself in court if you infringe on them.
Here are a couple of examples where the marketing team came up with a good idea but didn’t double-check with the legal team first:
- Oprah’s O magazine was sued for using “own your power” — a tagline already trademarked by a professional coach.
- Verizon discovered that the name DROID not only connected with consumers, it was also trademarked by LucasFilm, LTD.
Filmmakers and their promoters would do well to get a Title Report and Title Opinion before releasing their film to preempt the trademark lawsuits.
As you can see, the opportunities to get into legal battles are everywhere even for the most diligent of filmmakers. The Clearance Lab helps to protect films from legal troubles by offering in-depth analysis and review of everything from the script to the title to the paperwork.
All of these protections come together in a Clearance Package, available for every size film from an indie short to a feature film set for global release. Find the right package for your film and get protected today.