SciCast – Film School

Production —
Using Other Peoples’ Stuff

Ah, Copyright Law. Everyone’s favourite subject. What, you’re not interested? Huh. Fancy that. OK, then, here’s the brief version:

If you didn’t originate it, don’t put it in your film

If you use anything from somebody else — a bar of music, a still photograph, a single frame of video — we’ll need to know where it’s from. Why? Because we’re publishing your film for the world to see. There’s no way around this. There are no educational exemptions that apply.

So: the only way to be utterly, absolutely, 100% sure that your film can be published is to originate every last bit of it yourself. That’s the short version.

Common misconceptions

We’ve been doing this for a while, and the following phrases now always ring alarm bells for us:

  1. “The music’s royalty-free, we can use it free of charge.”
  2. “That picture is copyright-free.”
  3. “This came from YouTube, and they monitor everything for copyright, so it must be OK.”
  4. “It’s educational use.”
  5. “It’s fair use.”
  6. “30 seconds of music is OK”
  7. “We’ve paid our BBC license fee, so we can use their stuff”

Some of these are more obviously wrong than others, but they’re all almost always wrong. Where by ‘almost’ we mean ‘exceptions are technically possible, but we’ve yet to see one.’

Nevertheless, there are ways you can save yourself some time and use other peoples’ media, or spruce up your film with music or pictures from somewhere else. You’ll need to invest a little time learning a little bit of copyright law, though. Let’s see how palatable we can make that, starting with:

Things you just can’t use

  • Music ripped from CDs bought in shops, from films, or from TV shows.
  • Illustrations scanned from textbooks.
  • Professional photographs taken from random websites, for example via Google Image search.
  • Your own performance of music composed by somebody else (eg. the Beatles).

Just as with the misconceptions above, there are exceptions in theory, but we’ve yet to see any in practice. As a rule-of-thumb: If somebody’s selling it commercially, you can’t use it.

To be crystal clear: if you use anything that’s commercial, we can’t publish your film, and it hence won’t be eligible for the SciCast Awards. Sorry, but there it is.

Specific thing you can’t use: ‘Royalty-Free’ Library Music

OK, this is the hardest bit to get your head around. It’s downhill from here.

We get lots of films that use music from one of the commercial ‘production music’ libraries. Some Local Authorities have a blanket agreement for their schools. The libraries are great, and if you have a ‘royalty-free’ blanket deal you can indeed copy their music into your project without paying extra fees.

But we still can’t publish it. The ‘Royalty-free’ part applies to you, not us. We’d still be required to do reams of paperwork and pay publication fees to the music collecting agency — this is how the libraries make their money.

We like production music libraries. They do great stuff. But their stuff doesn’t work for SciCast. Sorry.

OK, that’s what you can’t do, let’s get more constructive.

So, what can you do?

You can use anything that the copyright holder allows you to use, so long as you follow the conditions they specify.

Oh, gee, that’s just peachy. What does it mean? Let’s go down the list of stuff you can use:

Stuff you can use:
1. Music from loops or editing software

If your editing software came with music loops or clips, or you have music software like GarageBand or Sony Acid (see the Gear - Editing page), then you’re probably OK with that stuff. Check the precise terms and conditions, if you can. We know you’re OK with Apple’s GarageBand, for example.

This works because the music loops are provided with open licenses, and the final composition is yours, so you’re free to apply the Creative Commons license we require.

Stuff you can use:
2. Material owned by a friend, with their permission

Need a photo of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and have a mate who was there last year? By all means use their photo, if they’ll let you. Make sure you explain what’s going to happen to their picture, and how it’s going to be licensed, so they know what they’re agreeing to. You might want them to sign a participation consent form, so you can demonstrate that you’ve done everything properly.

The same applies to music they’ve recorded for you — as long as they composed the track themselves. If it’s somebody else’s music and they’re just performing it, you’re back to square one.

Stuff you can use:
3. Material licensed under Creative Commons

It’s not just us who are doing the Creative Commons thing. Tens of thousands of people, all over the world, are joining in too. And most of the work they’re doing, you can reuse in your film — just as they could reuse your film in their work.

You need to be slightly careful, though. There are several varieties of Creative Commons license, so check the terms carefully. Of particular note:

  • “No derivatives” — You can’t change anything: you can’t mix or edit music licensed this way, for example, or crop a picture. “ND” licenses drive us up the wall, frankly. Every silver lining has a cloud.
  • “Share-Alike” — you can use works with this license condition, but your film will have to use the same license too. See the Licensing page for more.

Stuff you can use:
4. Other stuff

There’s quite a lot of material out there — NASA photographs, for example — that’s freely available if your project is for educational purposes, or under certain conditions (NASA’s are here). Read the details carefully and see if you think the conditions are workable. Drop us a line if you’re not sure.

If you use this sort of material, you should probably choose to license your film under the Attribution/Non-Commercial/Share-Alike license when you submit it to us, just to make sure that someone doesn’t accidentally sell NASA photos, or whatever.

Things to be careful of

If you use Creative Commons material in your film, or stuff from NASA, or whatever, be careful about how you use your film too. It’s no longer entirely yours — bits of it are owned by other people.

For example, you shouldn’t upload your film to YouTube. Doing so grants YouTube permission to sell your film commercially, but you can’t grant that permission for things you don’t own — like NASA’s pretty photographs of Venus.

We could go on about this for hours, and frankly even we’re getting bored of it now. But hopefully these examples have given you some of the background you need to make your own judgements, when you come across new situations.

Talk to us

Think you’ve found an exception, or want to query something? Please drop us a line with as much detail as you can — preferably before you include someone else’s material in your film.