Audit By Copyright or Learn Your ABCs

You Tube is more than an Internet warehouse of wacky home videos featuring a drugged seven year-old boy wondering if he is existing in real-life after a dental procedure, a one year-old biting a finger of his three year-old brother with the older brother giving a color commentary, and a three year-old girl explaining that she will kick a monster’s ass. Her logic, unflawed actually, is sourced in self-protection. “If he’s gonna come in here, he’s gonna kick my ass.”

You Tube is also a tremendous resource for researchers, scholars, and videophiles looking for clips of television programs and films that are not available in the legitimate marketplace. In some cases, the entire television program or film will be posted on You Tube, sometimes in segments averaging about 10 minutes.

In turn, You Tube is a platform for copyright owners to leverage in promoting their products’ availability in media, including DVD, broadcast or cable television, or theatres. This approach is “pretty nifty in theory, ”a phrase attributed to Andrew Dice Clay as the title character in the 1990 film The Adventures of Ford Fairlane.

But exploitation on You Tube or other media requires an orderly approach, beginning with confirming the copyright status of the video product.  ABC.  Audit By Copyright.

A copyright audit is advisable as a double check on the company’s record keeping regarding copyrights. Perhaps the best-known case of a copyright evaporating is It’s A Wonderful Life. The copyright owner did not renew the copyright in the mid-1970s. Consequently, the film fell into the public domain. In the 1970s and 1980s, television stations broadcast It’s A Wonderful Life with no license, several times during December, in some cases.

Absent a license, the stations sold advertising with no cost basis. Essentially, the ad revenue was free money. Or, as Ford Fairlane would say, “Cash. Moolah. Wampum. Dead presidents.”

It made the $8,000 that Henry Potter discovered in Uncle Billy’s newspaper look like pocket change.

This practice ended after the 1990 United States Supreme Court case of Stewart vs. Abend.  It gave copyright owners the right to license the creation and exploitation of derivative works from the seminal or original work. In the case of It’s A Wonderful Life, the seminal work was a short story, The Greatest Gift, by Philip Van Doren Stern. Because the owner of the film also owned the short story, they restored the broken link of copyright.

The popular argument against a copyright audit is the cost. If it does not generate revenue, decision makers reflexively balk. This approach is a short-term solution to a long-term problem. The purpose of an audit is to prevent loss of revenue by revealing problems, weakness, or misperceptions in the copyright portfolio. The purpose is not to generate revenue.

And yet, a copyright audit may reveal revenue possibilities by clarifying legal issues concerning purchased options, sequel and remake rights, and reversions. Everything old is new again in the creative community. But to license rights, one must ensure that the rights exist in ship-shape and Bristol fashion.  Secured, like a boat to the dock

A copyright audit could have prevented years, if not decades, of free broadcasts of It’s A Wonderful Life. George Bailey could have bought Bedford Falls with the revenue generated from license fees sourced in a proper copyright.

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