Robert Greenwald, an honored (and innovative) director and producer of films, has a new documentary coming out that critiqes Fox News, called OutFOXed. The New York Times Magazine has a lengthy article on many of the issues facing the making of this documentary, most prominently the copyright clearance issues (which are particularly difficult for films) (How to Make a Guerrilla Documentary).
Obviously, the documentary will feature many clips from Fox News, often showing them in a less than flattering light. Fox News famously sued over the title of Al Franken's book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. The case was laughed out of court, but it shows how litigous Fox News is willing to be. So, Greenwald is rightfully afraid that he will be sued, despite the merits of his case. Fortunately, it seems that perhaps Fox News has learned its lesson (their lawsuit helped publicize Franken's book better than anything). According to the Washington Post (annoying reg. req.) Fox News may ignore this documentary (though the statement certainly isn't a promise not to sue) (Too Late to Comment?):
"People steal our footage all the time," says Dianne Brandi, Fox News's vice president for legal affairs. "We generally sort of look the other way."
Nevertheless, there have already been other significant copyright problems, according to the NY Times Magazine article:
Then there was the fact that several major news organizations were unexpectedly refusing to license their clips. (Such licensing is ordinarily pro forma.) CBS wouldn't sell Greenwald the clip of Richard Clarke's appearance on ''60 Minutes,'' explaining that it didn't want to be associated with a controversial documentary about Murdoch. WGBH, the Boston PBS station, wouldn't let Greenwald use excerpts from ''Frontline'' for fear of looking too ''political,'' it said.
An aside: Of course, why use copyright law if there are other means to prevent the making of these sorts of films. Take, for example, the process Greenwald used to make the film:
''Outfoxed'' was made in an unusually collaborative fashion. In January, Greenwald rigged up a dozen DVD recorders and programmed them to record Fox News 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for about six months.Fortunately, Greenwald didn't have to deal with the broadcast flag, which would make using such clips significantly more difficult (and expensive).
Another critical aspect to note about Greenwald's film is the innovative distribution methods he uses, bypassing traditional gatekeepers:
Last year, Greenwald followed up that effort with ''Uncovered,'' his critique of the Bush administration's case for war in Iraq, which featured interviews with former intelligence analysts, weapons inspectors and Foreign Service officers. Once the film wrapped, Greenwald turned the traditional distribution model on its head. Rather than taking the time-consuming route of entering film festivals or courting theater distributors, he sold the DVD of ''Uncovered'' through the Web sites of various left-liberal organizations: MoveOn, The Nation magazine, the Center for American Progress and the alternative-news Web sites AlterNet and BuzzFlash.Through such means he has sold tens of thousands of DVDs. This is no mean feat and it shows the power of alternative distribution. After all, what conventional distributor would be willing to publish such an obvious lawsuit target?
Another aside: The people behind the film recognize the potential for even more innovative distribution.
Jim Gilliam, a 26-year-old former dot-com executive and a producer of ''Outfoxed,'' is enthusiastic about the way Greenwald's projects meld grass-roots politics with the culture of the Internet. He predicts a future -- augured by events like MoveOn's competition for the best 30-second anti-Bush advertisement -- in which young political filmmakers will be as likely to wield a camera phone as a digital camera. ''It won't be long before people will be shooting and editing short documentaries that they'll stream from their blogs,'' he says.Yep. Sounds like broadcatching.
As the Times article describes, Greenwald’s style for distributing documentaries may be the beginning of something new — political criticism, using interviews and clips, making a strong political point, distributed through DVDs and political action groups. (See some other examples here). On what theory does he, and others, have the right to use such material without permission? On the free culture theory we call the First Amendment: Copyright law must, the Court told us in Eldred, embed “fair use”; “fair use” is informed by First Amendment values; the values of the First Amendment most relevant here are those expressed in New York Times v. Sullivan. As with news-gathering, critical political filmmaking needs a buffer zone of protection against the overreaching of the law. And if the potential of this medium — now liberated by digital technology — is to be realized, we need clear precedents that establish that critics have the freedom to criticize without having to hire a lawyer first. [links in original]Indeed. Lessig's right:
Watch the movie. Celebrate the freedom it represents. It is a particularly American freedom that we should celebrate and practice more often.