February 9, 2005
Putting Eyeballs on Copyright Law
By Katie Dean
BERKELEY, California -- Civil rights activists and copyright
reformers convened for a screening of the first installment
of the landmark documentary Eyes on the Prize Tuesday night
to send the message that it is "morally wrong" to deny
people access to information and history.
Many of the 30 people (a handful of reporters among them)
who crowded into attorney Don Jelinek's living room here
worked in Mississippi and Alabama during the civil rights
movement themselves -- registering black voters, staging
sit-ins and marching, as well as getting harassed, shot at
and jailed. These members of Bay Area Veterans of the Civil
Rights Movement meet monthly and decided to screen an
illegal digital copy of the film when they learned that it
was currently unavailable for broadcast or on DVD.
As Wired News first reported, Eyes on the Prize, which
debuted on PBS in 1987, can no longer be broadcast on
television and has never been released on DVD due to a
tangle of licensing issues. When the film was first made,
each piece of newsreel footage, photograph and song used in
the 14-part series had to be licensed from its copyright
holder. Due to limited funding, the filmmakers could only
afford to buy rights to the material for a certain number of
years, and now those rights have expired.
The unavailability of Eyes on the Prize prompted activist
group Downhill Battle to organize screenings of the film
across the country. About 100 screenings were planned for
Tuesday in honor of Black History Month, according to the
In Berkeley, Eyes on the Prize: Awakenings, covering 1954 to
1956, was screened on a large PC monitor to the rapt
attention of everyone squeezed into the living room. The
film covered significant events in the beginning of the
civil rights movement like the murder of Emmett Till and the
Montgomery bus boycott.
"The events, images, narratives and songs of Eyes on the
Prize were not written, created or performed by the
corporations who now have the copyrights under their lock
and key," said Bruce Hartford, reading from a statement
signed by the 20-plus members of the Bay Area Veterans of
the Civil Rights Movement group.
"These folks are burying our history," said Jelinek, who
spent three years in the South working for the Student
Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, spending some of that
time ducking gunfire. "Copyright law was never meant to
interfere with the public's right to know. We expected that
the experiences would be in the public domain.... The people
who are barring this will have to pay a price."
Because only limited VHS copies of the series were available
through libraries and schools, Downhill Battle directed
people to download digital versions of the film (made by an
anonymous group called Common Sense Releasers) using a
peer-to-peer application -- that is, until a lawyer for
Blackside (the production company that created the series)
asked the group to remove links to the film from its
The setback didn't stop the screenings. Many hosts checked
tapes out of the libraries and Tom Hunt, one of the co-hosts
for the showing in Berkeley, downloaded the first film in
the series before Downhill Battle took down the links.
Before the film, Hunt read a portion of Article 1, Section 8
of the U.S. Constitution, which gives authors and inventors
ownership rights for a limited time "to promote the progress
of science and useful arts." Then he gave a brief overview
of how the length of copyright ownership has been extended
many times over, making it difficult for documentary
filmmakers to "do history."
Like people in the film, which highlights ordinary citizens
who worked alongside leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. in
the movement, former civil rights workers in attendance
spent the evening sharing their stories. Wazir Peacock,
whose father worked on a cotton plantation as a
sharecropper, talked about how he gave up a career in
medicine to work in the Mississippi Delta registering blacks
to vote. Peacock said he got involved in the civil rights
movement after being outraged that grown black men were
still treated like little boys by racist southern whites.
"It hurt me to my very soul," Peacock said.
Jimmy Rogers became involved in the movement while he was a
student at Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University). He
described witnessing the murder of white seminarian Jonathan
Daniels in Alabama. Daniels' murderer was acquitted. He also
worked alongside Sam Young, another student at Tuskegee
involved in the civil rights movement, who was murdered at a
Blackside and other filmmakers who lent their talents to
Eyes on the Prize are currently working to assess the costs
of re-clearing rights. An estimate of such costs is expected
within weeks. Blackside's attorney said the company wants to
make the series available again.
Hunt said he was very pleased with the turnout and the
message that the screening sent.
"It's showing how dysfunctional the current copyright system
is," Hunt said. "It's in the way of the artists and their
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