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Copyright for Student Filmmakers

This guide provides copyright basics and assists students in properly using copyrighted artistic works.

What kinds of materials are covered by copyright?

In Hong Kong and many other countries, copyright usually lasts until 50 years after the creator of the work dies. This can be extended or changed depending on the circumstances, and each country has their own laws. Therefore, if you are using any of the following types of material in your film, it is likely that you will need to get permission to use them:

  • Music and other recorded audio (whether it is featured or just background noise)
  • Film/video clips (whether it is featured or playing in the background)
  • Artworks or photography (whether it is featured or in the background)
  • Branded Products (i.e. easily recognizable products, such as iPhones)
  • Company Logos (best to cover these up or blur it out in editing)

How do I get permission to use copyrighted works?

Step One: Contact the copyright owner

This is typically easier if the copyright owner is less well known. For example, a small, independent musician will be easier to contact than an internationally renowned recording artist, and is more likely to let you use their work for free, or for a small fee. 

Explain to them what you would like to use their work for, and how the resulting film will be used (e.g. will it only be screened in the classroom, or will be it submitted for a film festival?)

Step Two: Ask the copyright owner to sign a release form  

Typically you will need written documentation to show you have permission to use copyrighted material. This is so you have a record of the owner having given you permission in case there is a later dispute. Check with your instructor if they have formal documentation they would like to use. If not, there are many free resources on the internet you can adapt to your own purposes: 

Step Three: Store the release forms 

Release forms are legal documents, so you need to make sure you store them securely. If you use paper forms, scan them to store digitally, and be sure to make back up copies. You will also need to send copies to the copyright owner for their records. Your instructor may request to have copies of the forms submitted as part of your assessment. 

I have already cited the works I used, do I still need to get permission of the copyright owner?

This depends on how your film is going to be used. Having cited a work properly in your project means you have acknowledged the author’s contribution and therefore are not committing plagiarism.

However, citing a source does not protect you against claims of copyright infringement for a creative work. In general, if your film is going to be screened outside the classroom (for example, it is posted to YouTube, or screened at a film festival), you will still need permission to use a copyrighted work in the form of reproduction, distribution, and public display, Otherwise, you are infringing the copyright.

* Adapted from Copyright Guide for Students: The Copyright Resources Center, Ohio State University Libraries

Are there alternatives to using copyrighted material?

There are many alternatives to using costly copyrighted work in student films:  

One: Use material in the public domain 

Public Domain refers to content that can be used for free by anyone for any purpose and is neither owned nor controlled by any one. Content usually receive this status when their copyright expires or if the creator chooses to give it that status. Do remember that even if something is in the Public Domain in one country, it may not be in the Public Domain in ALL countries. Tools such as Appropedia and can help you find content in the Public Domain.

Two: Use material licensed under a Creative Commons license

Creative Commons licenses are a way for creators to make their work available to others for free, without having to seek permission. 

For this type of content you need to check the license: even though you don't need to pay or seek permission, most creators will ask that you acknowledge them in some way (for example, in your credits). As a courtesy you can also contact the creator to tell them you have used their work - they will likely be very happy! 

Images Music Video

See also:

Three: Make your own! 

Get creative and explore different ways of producing content for your film. Smartphone apps make creating content simple and fun. Try some of these apps to produce original content for your film: 

  • Figure - create your own music loops.
  • GarageBand - used by many amateur musicians to produce original recordings.
  • Canva - Simple-to-use web-based tool to create original logos, graphics and displays.