As Americans commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. and his legacy today, no television channel will be broadcasting the documentary series Eyes on the Prize. Produced in the 1980s and widely considered the most important encapsulation of the American civil-rights movement on video, the documentary series can no longer be broadcast or sold anywhere.
Why? The makers of the series no longer have permission for the archival footage they previously used of such key events as the historic protest marches or the confrontations with Southern police. Given Eyes on the Prize's tight budget, typical of any documentary, its filmmakers could barely afford the minimum five-year rights for use of the clips. That permission has long since expired, and the $250,000 to $500,000 needed to clear the numerous copyrights involved is proving too expensive. [...]
"The owners of the libraries, which are now increasingly under corporate consolidation, see this as a ready source of income," Else says. "It has turned our history into a commodity. They might as well be selling underwear or gasoline." [...]
Before the digital and documentary explosion, a clip of President Nixon speaking, for instance, usually could be licensed "in perpetuity," meaning that the film could continue to use the footage indefinitely. Now the incentive is for copyright owners to grant only limited permission. "Increasingly, it's harder and harder to get 'in perpetuity,' because rights-holders realize that somebody will have to come back in five years or 10 years and pay more money," Flahive says. [...]
"Why do you think the History Channel is what it is? Why do you think it's all World War II documentaries? It's because it's public-domain footage. So the history we're seeing is being skewed towards what's fallen into public domain," says filmmaker Robert Stone in the American University study.
The high cost of getting permission to use archival footage and photos threatens to put makers of documentaries out of business:
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