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Karen Shatzkin

…because few know more about the laws and ethics of documentary filmmaking. Over the past thirty years, Shatzkin has served as the legal advisor on nearly 200 documentary films and television shows. Her expertise on issues such as fair use, privacy laws and contract negotiations has been a huge resource to filmmakers like D.A. Pennebaker and Jonathan Demme. In fact, Shatzkin got her start by representing Pennebaker in a case against the subject of his classic film "Don't Look Back," a folk singer named Bob Dylan.



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Karen on D. A. Pennebaker

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Helping Documentary Filmmakers

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Karen on Fair Use

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Shatzkin is considered one of the foremost attorneys on errors and omissions (E&O) insurance. While this may not sound as exciting as taking rock and roll legends to court, it’s basically a necessity for any production, especially documentaries. Documentaries present themselves as works of non-fiction, so if they get anything wrong, it can be kind of a big deal. However, Shatzkin has earned such a reputation that the companies involved in this area essentially yield to her thoroughness when it comes to the paperwork. This doesn’t mean that aspiring filmmakers should try to learn the ins and outs of E&O insurance; not only would this require a law degree, it would also take a lifetime of firsthand experience with these contracts. Instead, Shatzkin’s work on projects dealing with subjects like American presidents, the war in Afghanistan and Joan Rivers proves the value of having a damn good lawyer in the room.

Although we probably have to warn you that this doesn’t count as legal advice, Shatzkin is a huge proponent of fair use for documentary films. Essentially, the fair use provision allows documentary filmmakers to include copyrighted material for a pretty broad spectrum of reasons. Whether the film parodies the material in question or provides a critical commentary, the First Amendment generally tends to side with filmmakers over the copyright holders. Filmmakers can still choose to license any material they deem necessary in order to avoid potential obstacles, but the courts surprisingly lean towards a broad interpretation when it comes to documentaries – so take that, constitutional originalism! The proliferation of videos in the digital age has also added a more pragmatic side to fair use issues. For a lot of copyright owners, it simply isn’t worth the time and money to challenge each and every use of a few seconds worth of material, not to mention the fact that the internet will generally deem these copyright owners to be a bunch of bullies.

Were you aware that privacy and copyright laws are different legal issues for documentary films? If you didn’t know that, then you probably didn’t know that these laws can differ in the state or country where you are filming. While Shatzkin obviously knows the legal obstacles related to documentary film, her main advice to filmmakers is that they also understand what they are up against. Again, this doesn’t mean that directors and producers need to enroll in law school, but it’s a pretty good idea to consult a lawyer before filming begins. Basically, this comes down to opportunity cost. Most productions will only have a limited time in certain locations and with certain subjects. Surprisingly, Shatzkin believes that having an awareness of the legal hurdles will keep a filmmaker from erring on the side of caution. In the end, it’s almost always better to have the footage than to not have the footage – so long as no crew members are arrested or assaulted in the process of obtaining it.

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The Biz: The Basic Business, Legal and Financial Aspects of the Film Industry, 4th Ed.

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Contracts for the Film & Television Industry, 3rd Edition

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Entertainment Law Resources by Mark Litwak

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