Law students secure copyright exemption

Law students from the USC Intellectual Property and Technology Clinic helped to secure a significant copyright exemption this summer on behalf of documentary filmmakers who wish to extract materials from DVDs.

Free · Documentary producers can now use DVD materials in their films, thanks to USC law students. - James Watson | Daily Trojan

Chris Perez, a USC law school graduate, and Ashlee Lin, a current law student, lobbied for the exemption during talks to amend the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, which criminalizes the act of extracting materials from DVDs.

Jack Lerner, assistant professor of law at USC and director of the clinic, saw this lack of access as a problem.

“A central part of documentary filmmaking is discussing material to which you do not hold copyrights,” Lerner said. “As DVDs became the default media of our time, it became harder for filmmakers to become engaged in this type of commentary because of the laws around encryption.”

Perez and Lin drafted and submitted a comment in 2008 about the issue to the U.S. Copyright Office. This was followed up by an additional comment submitted in February 2009. The pair secured the exemption last July.

“The students drafted every comment, every piece of correspondence with the copyright office,” Lerner said. “This is on their shoulders and has been from the start.”

In collaboration with Los Angeles-based attorney Michael C. Donaldson, the students represented Kartemquin Films of Chicago, the International Documentary Association and a national coalition of documentary filmmakers and filmmaker organizations.

Perez explains that they faced formidable opposition during the process, including the Motion Picture Association of America, the Recording Industry of America and Warner Brothers, who all saw the exemption as a license for piracy.

The exemption, however, would merely restore to filmmakers the ability to make fair use of material for appraisal, rather than to copy and distribute entire DVDs for monetary gain.

Before the exemption, it was impossible for documentary filmmakers to reap the benefits of the fair use doctrine. The students were able to secure use of brief quotes from DVDs to comply with the doctrine.

Law student Jimmy Chen sees the modified ruling as “the law catching up to itself.” He and Daniel Fullerton, a graduate student studying law, are working to inform the film industry about the new exemption.

“We have a four-pronged plan,” Fullerton said. “A brochure will be posted online, a website will be set up, a short film made to train filmmakers how to handle material in light of the exemption and speaking events will be arranged.”

The clinic is now in the process of attempting to inform the documentary film community of this exemption in hopes that more filmmakers will take advantage of documentary film.

The USC Intellectual Property and Technology Clinic was formed as a crossroads of law, technology and policy, Lerner said. It aids policymakers, artists, innovators and non-profit organizations in attempts to secure their rights on a variety of issues.