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USC Gould’s IPTLC Wins Battle on Behalf of Filmmakers, E-book Authors
USC Gould School of Law

Friday, October 26, 2012

Historic copyright exemption announced

Outside the Library of Congress after testifying before the U.S. Copyright Office. (left to right) Prof. Jack Lerner, Brendan Charney ¹13, Alex Cohen ¹13, Michael Donaldson (Donaldson & Callif and co-counsel to the clinic), Jim Morrissette (Technical Director, Kartemquin Films) and Gordon Quinn (Founder and Artistic Director, Kartemquin Films)

-By Gilien Silsby

USC Gould School of Law's Intellectual Property and Technology Law Clinic achieved a historic copyright exemption today when the Library of Congress determined that documentary filmmakers and multimedia e-books authors may obtain materials from DVD and online media for commentary in their works.

“Encryption and other forms of technological locks have become pervasive in the digital environment, and these locks have special legal protection under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act [DMCA],” said Jack Lerner, a professor at USC Gould and director of the Intellectual Property and Technology Law Clinic. “That’s why today’s exemption is so important — it preserves the ability for filmmakers and e-book authors to use films in criticism and commentary, as they have done for decades.”

Under Lerner’s supervision and in collaboration with co-counsel Michael C. Donaldson of Donaldson & Callif in Beverly Hills, USC Gould students Brendan Charney ’13 and Alex Cohen ’13 drafted lengthy comments and coordinated a nationwide coalition of documentary filmmakers and filmmaker organizations, including the International Documentary Association, Kartemquin Films, the Independent Filmmaker Project, and the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture, as well as several prominent film scholars.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) makes it a crime to break the digital locks on DVDs and other online media. Many filmmakers and authors, have been restricted by the DMCA from using a wealth of material simply because it is on DVD or the web.  In 2010, USC Gould students achieved an exemption that allowed documentary filmmakers to obtain materials from DVD for purposes of criticism and commentary. Today’s ruling permits documentary filmmakers to obtain materials from online media as well as DVDs, and permits multimedia e-book authors to do the same.

“When I found out that I had been accepted into the clinic, I never imagined that I would have the opportunity to go to Washington, D.C., and argue in front of the Copyright Office on behalf of such an impressive group of filmmakers and authors,” Cohen said. “I am particularly proud of the clinic’s role in giving filmmakers and e-book authors access to the exponentially growing number of materials delivered through the Internet that are restricted by digital locks.”

Included in the comments were statements from various filmmakers working on projects that require taking fair-use content from DVD, Blu-Ray and online video. A wealth of documentaries, including Kartemquin’s The Trials of Muhammad Ali, American Arab and Mormons Make Movies, require the DMCA exemption, as do a burgeoning group of authors using new tools to create multimedia e-books on platforms such as the iPad and the Kindle Fire.

“Multimedia e-book technology allows authors to express ideas in amazing new ways,” Charney said. “Film scholars can now embed film clips and other media into their books, enabling them to present analysis in book form that had previously been confined to the classroom. Today’s decision means that authors can now explore that technology without the fear of crushing legal liability.”

Bobette Buster, an adjunct professor at USC School of Cinematic Arts School, was a key member of a group of noted film scholars who requested the exemption for e-book authors.

"After years of being unable to move out of the 'ivory tower' with my film analysis lecture series, Professor Lerner and his team have liberated the opportunities for authors such as myself to offer our material democratically to the world," said Buster, who also testified in Washington, D.C. in support of the exemption on behalf of e-book authors. "I am very proud to have been part of this historic breakthrough in Fair Use."  USC SCA Professor Barnet Kellman was also among those who requested the exemption.

Without this exemption, many important projects currently in production could not have been made, Donaldson said. “This is a great day for documentary filmmaking and for the future of books.”

The exemption, which tookeffect Monday, Oct. 29, will expire in late 2015. The ruling may be found at


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