The process of making a movie has become more streamlined in recent years. In the past, major financial investments in camera and other equipment made even basic movie-making prohibitively expensive. Today, unless the movie involves intense special effects (that could cost hundreds of millions of dollars), a very small investment in cameras and editing equipment can get the project off the ground. With that being said, making a movie is still more than just picking up a camera and filming. There are important legal considerations to keep in mind before recording anything and releasing it to the public.
In general, cameras film people, places, and objects. As a rule, it is a good idea to get permission before recording anyone or anything. In some cases, not doing so can expose you to legal liability. For individuals that you film, you should get a signed artist release. When drafted correctly, this document gives you permission to film a particular person and also to release their image for public viewing in any medium. Some artists place restrictions on where their image can be released (for example, viewing in a theater is fine, but no viewing on television). If you are the film producer, it is logistically simpler to not agree to these types of restrictions. Instead, you should seek a full buyout of rights from the artist, giving you permission to show your film in any capacity whatsoever, whether now or in some future medium that hasn’t even been invented yet.
The same rule applies when dealing with owners of private locations that you are filming. Get the owners’ permission in writing to film their private property along with a release permitting you to show your film on any medium. Filming on public property may require a permit from the city or county.
When certain objects are captured on film, you should be very careful about showing trademarks. For example, a bottle of Coca Cola certainly contains the intellectual property (i.e. trademark) of the Coca Cola Company. When you buy that bottle, you are really doing so to consume the beverage contained inside. If you decide to use the bottle in a film, there is a chance that you could face a lawsuit.
(Scroll down to read more.)
In general, trademark infringement occurs when you use a trademark on a similar good. So if Pepsi were to take the Coca Cola logo and use it on their soda products, you have a case for trademark infringement. But using the actual Coca Cola bottle in a movie is certainly not an example of using a registered trademark on a similar product. So why would there be any trademark infringement risk to you the filmmaker?
Because you can be sued for any reason, that’s why!
Even if your use of a Coca Cola bottle is not direct trademark infringement, other claims could be raised against you. For example, a claim for “tarnishment”, which is the use of a trademark in a way that lowers its reputation , could be filed. In other words, depending on how you use the trademarked item in the film, you run the risk of having the trademark owner file suit to defend their property even if their lawsuit may not prevail in the end!
These are just a small sampling of issues to know about just when you pick up a camera and start filming. There are even more issues in play when it comes to editing your film, adding music, and distributing the final product to market. This is not meant to discourage anyone from becoming a filmmaker. But it is intended to get each new filmmaker to take a step back and understand some of the complexities involved in a production project.