Copyrights and Wrongs

In this project, we aim to respect intellectual copyright and obey copyright laws.It’s a very difficult topic and issues are rarely clear. In this digital age, however, teachers and students need a fairly sound understanding of what they can and cannot do.

Main Issues involving Copyright Laws

  • Copyright laws are complex and there are many misunderstanding about them.
  • The laws are open to interpretation. You may research the law, believe you are following the law and actually be following the law. A company, however, may still disagree with you and decide to sue you. The judge would have to use his own interpretation.
  • Though most people are not sued or prosecuted, copyright holders have begun suing individuals (to set an example), and the punishments have been severe. For example, the Joel Tenebaum case has finally concluded after 8 years. When he was twenty, he was sued for downloading 30 songs. How much money has he been ordered to pay? USD 675,000.
  • The enforcement of copyright law is very inconsistent.

Task 1 Copyright: A Brief Discussion

Discuss the following questions in a small group. Write down your answers and be prepared to explain them to the class.

a)      Why is it necessary? What is the purpose of copyright?





b) Do you ever download things like copyrighted music, video and software for your own use without paying for it? What are your justifications for doing this?




c)  Do you think the copyright holder would agree with these justifications? Explain your answer.




d) What are the negative effects of large numbers of people illegally copying or downloading materials?






Copyright FAQ for Student Filmmakers

1. What is copyright?
It is a system of laws that give the original creator of a work control over his/her work. Different aspects of a work may enjoy copyright protection. For example, with a music recording, the song (music and lyrics) as well as the recording would be protected by copyright. As soon as an original work is published or distributed (even if it is just a YouTube video, a Facebook photo or set of class notes), it is protected by copyright. There does not need to be a formal copyright notice attached to the work.

Generally, copyright refers to “the right to copy”, but also gives the copyright holder the right to be credited for the work, to determine who may adapt the work to other forms, who may perform the work, who may financially benefit from it, and other related rights.

Usually copyright protection ends after a specified time. This time differs from country to country but is generally a very long period (50 to 70 years after the death of person who created the work.  After this time period, the work enters what is called the public domain—that means anyone can use it.

2. What about slogans and logos. Are they protected?
Besides copyright law, you also need to consider trademark law (e.g., Nike has trademark protection for its logo and slogan). This lasts for the life of the company and means that you are not allowed to use the logo and slogan in ways that might cause people to think you are producing a product from that company.

3. How long is it before a work enters the public domain?
A long time! For a detailed explanation you need a Public Domain Sherpa ( After a specified period of time expires, works are said to enter the public domain. This means that they can be freely used. Let’s look at when films enter the public domain:

USA: Music and films released in America before 1923 are in the public domain. For the works of individuals, the term is the author’s life plus 70 years after his or her death. If the work is a joint work, term is measured by the last surviving author’s life plus 70 years (this is a simplified version; the actual details are more complex). According to Public Domain Sherpa, because of strange legal issues most music recordings in the US will not enter the Public Domain until 2067!

HK: According to Hong Kong law regarding copyright on movies:  “Copyright expires at the end of the period of 50 years from the end of the calendar year in which the death occurs of the last to die of the following persons:
(a) the principal director;
(b) the author of the screenplay;
(c) the author of the dialogue; or
(d) the composer of music specially created for and used in the film”

(See the Hong Kong Copyright Ordinance:

4. What is Fair Use?
If you use a small portion of the original for educational purposes (e.g., showing how different film directors have different styles) and that you are only showing the original to a small amount of people (e.g., your class), you can argue that your use of the copyrighted material is fair use and doesn’t need permission.

There are no exact formulas concerning fair use, but in a court case, they would look a four aspects:

a) The nature of the original work. If it is factual, like a biography or documentary, it is easier to argue Fair Use than if the original work is creative.

b) The amount of the original work used. There is no exact figure, but a generally accepted limit in the education field is 10%. Others may argue that there is no safe number and that even showing a tiny percentage is unacceptable if you are showing or copying one of the most important parts of the work.

c) The purpose of your work (for example, is it educational or just for fun) & the amount of original commentary added in proportion to the amount of the original work used

d) The effect of use on the potential market. Showing something in class to 30 people, for example, is different than posting it on YouTube where it can be accessed by the whole world.

Besides fair use there may be other exemptions. For example, schools in Hong Kong are allowed to make limited numbers of copies of newspaper articles to use as learning materials.

5. How do I apply for a Fair Use license?
There is no such thing. Fair use is a defense to use in case someone decides to sue you. Therefore, it can be somewhat dangerous to claim fair use.  The copyright holder may disagree with you and sue you anyways. Court cases are always troublesome.

6. So, it’s OK to use really old things like a recording of a Mozart concerto or an image of a painting by Da Vinci, right?
Maybe not. If an existing work is modified, then it may be considered a new work that is protected by copyright. One example, would be a new arrangement for saxophone and piano of a piece composed by J.S Bach. This new arrangement would be copyrighted. If you posted a copy of this arrangement online or posted your own performance on YouTube, the music publisher would be able to sue you.

Also, many museums claim copyright over images of the paintings and sculptures in their collections. In the most relevant court case in the USA, the museum’s claims were rejected. Museums, however, have not given up, so it is possible you could still get sued.

7. How do I get permission to use copyrighted material, like a  famous pop song, in a student video?
It can be extremely difficult unless you are dealing with an unsigned (i.e., they don’t have a contract with a record company) songwriter/musician. In this case, you can send an e-mail requesting use of the song.If it is a song by a well known performer, however, things become incredibly difficult. You would need to get permission from the music composer(s,) the lyricist(s), the publisher, the performer(s) and the record company. If any of the people are dead, you would need to seek out their family members. With each owner, you would need to request that they grant you a synchronization license (giving you the right to include the song in a video) and a Master Use license (giving you the right to distribute your video).  These licenses are typically very expensive.  Small indie filmmakers can expect to spend several thousand USD to get the licenses for a single song. For studio produced movies, the fees are often in the hundreds of thousands.  The whole process take a long time and there would is little chance of getting a positive response from everyone involved. (the whole process is outlined here:

There are copyright clearance agencies that can be hired to perform this task (for a fee). There are many cases of professional Hollywood filmmakers being unable to use music they want because:

  • the rights holders won’t all agree, or
  • the costs are too high

Copyright Quiz

Let’s see how well you know your copyright rules. If you are making a video and posting it to YouTube, can you include the following things in your video without permission?

  1. Justin Bieber’s recording of Baby
  2. Your own recording of yourself playing  Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata (the original version)
  3. Your own recording of your school’s symphonic band playing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony at a public concert
  4. An audio recording of a Moonlight Sonata as performed by Yundi Li
  5. A video clip of a film made in the Hong Kong in 1960
  6. A video clip of a film made in the USA in 1960
  7. A cute photo of a baby someone took and posted on his/her website or Facebook page without any indication that the photo is copyrighted or that permission is required
  8. Scenes from a film made in 1912, with the last principal creator (the composer of the music) dying in (1955) and released with a DVD version in 2008. The DVD version has been cleaned up and some extra scenes have been added. You took the film clip from this DVD, but didn’t use the extra scenes.
  9. An original song recorded in Hong Kong in 1950 (the composer died in 1970)
  10. Your own drawing of Mickey Mouse in a how-to-draw video.
  11. A video you took of your baby cousin in your aunt’s house playing with a Mickey Mouse toy.
  12. Three minutes of the film Toy Story (the scene where the heroes are about to fall into the pit of fire) as part of a film review
  13. A fan-made trailer of Twilight using your own music and scenes from the movie
  14. Your own parody of Justin Bieber’s Baby video, with completely new lyrics and yourself playing the role of Justin Bieber.
  15. A video and audio mash-up of Baby (Justin Bieber) and Poker Face (Lady Gaga)
  16. A video of your birthday party at a local restaurant with everybody singing Happy Birthday.
  17. A video of your friends dancing to Gangnam Style with the music playing in the background.
  18. Your fan-made video of a Taylor Swift singing at her Hong Kong concert.
  19. A digital image of a 300-year-old painting from a museum website. On the museum’s website, there is a notice saying it owns copyright over all images of the paintings that it owns.
  20. Someone has recently painted a new version of the Mona Lisa—but as an alien. It is quite funny, so you include it on your video.
  21. Pictures you took of your friends at Sports Day. You add the slogan: Just Do It under the photo.
  22. A video introducing your class t-shirt design. The slogan on the t-shirt is Just Do It.

Are you ready to check the Copyright Quiz Answers?

Further reading

Stephen Richards has posted two related articles:

You can also give your own comments on the illegal downloading debate on our discussion forum:

Return to the Video Projects Main Page



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