What Am I Paying For? Understanding Copyright in Video Production

Image courtesy of True Color Lab

You’ve found your production team. You’ve agreed on a price. The concept was superb, and the footage was outstanding. It was so outstanding, in fact, that you want copies of it. All of it. You paid for it after all. It belongs to you, right?

I’ve dealt with this issue numerous times, and most clients understand the error of this thought process once I explain it to them. Unfortunately, copyright ownership is a subject that tends to be avoided unless the question is specifically asked, and that is unfortunate, as avoiding the conversation until it becomes an issue generally leads to hard feelings. I’ve found that a brief conversation up front saves a lot of headache later. Many clients mistakenly assume they own everything that is generated on their behalf. This common misconception is further fueled by video producers who do not understand the issue themselves, and inadvertently muddy the waters for the rest of us.

Let me state unequivocally, that copyright on video footage, or any creative work for that matter, always automatically belongs to the producer of said work…not to the person who pays for it to be produced, unless some other agreement is negotiated. This is different from employer/employee produced creative. That is known as “Work for Hire” and is different from the client/contractor situation I’m discussing here. If you care to study the nuances of copyright law, do a Google search for the Copyright Act of 1976. For this discussion, I will spare you the in-depth analysis.

Let’s get specific. You’ve hired a production team to produce a TV ad. You’ve paid them to shoot the commercial. Why don’t you own the footage? The answer is that you haven’t paid for the footage at all. You’ve paid to have a commercial produced…the end product. The shooting of the footage is a necessary step in the process. It is not the end result, and the end result, i.e. the completed TV ad and the right to use it on television, IS what you are paying for.

This does not mean that it is not possible for a client to own the rights to raw footage, but that should be negotiated up front, as it is not standard procedure, and clients generally pay a premium for such an arrangement. When you hire Wheelhouse to produce a video for you, you are hiring a specific team, with specific skills who are going to give you a specific look, based on their own talents and creative vision. In other words, you are also paying for a unique vision. That is why you hire us.

This is not to say that you won’t find a person or studio who is willing to simply give you the footage they charged you to shoot. It happens all the time. At best, it’s a sure sign of inexperience. At worst, they see no value in their craft and don’t know why anyone would pay for it…so maybe you shouldn’t either.

Featured image courtesy of True Color Lab