Re: Film Copyright Laws

We get some wonderful questions from our amazingly talented students:

I need some help. My CBR Project, Phase I, will be underway quickly; it involves my students composing music and putting it to a silent film. However, I know that most silent films are black and white and they are fairly old. However, I don’t know if there are copyright laws that would pertain to that genre of film. Is there a public domain cut-off for this type of film? If I need to get permission for something I would like to use, if it meets certain criteria, then I need to get it ASAP. Please point me in the right direction. Thanks, MM

So copyright law says, basically, that you need to ask permission to use any copyrighted material and any media created in the past 70 to 100 years, unless otherwise specifically licensed, is copyrighted. For your project what this means that you need to either use movies that were published in or before 1911 or look for movies that were licensed differently or track down the copyright holder(s) of the movies that you want to use and get permission.

There is a tiny education Fair Use loophole. But the test as to whether something can be used under this loophole is:

Can you still teach the same unit/lesson if the specific piece of media were removed or replaced.

I’m guessing that the answer is “yes,” you can replace the silent film with any other silent film and still do the lesson. Therefore the educational Fair Use loophole does NOT apply. You are not really teaching about that film directly, but using it to teach something. Also, even if you could not replace the media, you would not be able to use the whole film because the law states that you can only use a “small portion” of the whole work.

So, a better solution would be for you to go to or to find media that can be used for your projects. These website were specifically created to enable creatives and educators to legally use media and train the next generation of creatives. Hope that this helps. jbb