As an inherently creative medium, the film industry is heavily intertwined with the field of IP law. Directors, editors, producers, and people at all stages of the filmmaking process are affected by these laws and can benefit from a fundamental knowledge of how they can be protected and avoid infringement.

What is IP Law?

IP law stands for “intellectual property law, and is one of the most important parts of the legal system when it comes to the film industry. Intellectual property, as the name suggests, involves intangible property which can range from inventions to branding and design materials to creative work. Several different IP law categories exist to cover a unique set of intellectual property. The four primary subsets are trademarks, trade secrets, patents, and copyrights.

Trademarks, often indicated by the “TM” symbol, protect brand names, logos, slogans, and other brand identifiers. This means that other companies in a given jurisdiction (often nationally, if filed with the United States Patent Trademark Office) cannot use the same brand name or a highly similar logo, etc. if it could be reasonably confused with the trademark holder.

Trade secrets are a bit less straightforward than trademarks are. A trade secret is any piece of confidential information that gives a business a competitive edge in the market. This can include everything from secret recipes for a fast food chain to confidential manufacturing techniques for a solar company or even supplier and vendor lists. Trade secrets must be protected via confidentiality agreements or contracts in order to be enforceable.

Patents are temporary market monopolies granted to inventions that meet patenting requirements. Typically, this means that for a period of 20 years, only the original creator of an invention can manufacture, advertise, produce, and sell the invention. In order to be patent eligible, inventions must be useful, novel, and non-obvious. Only demonstrably new inventions that have inherent usefulness can be patented. Design patents also exist to cover aesthetic aspects of inventions.

Lastly, copyrights protect original creative work. Most people are familiar with copyrights in the music industry, but this IP law category also covers literature, artwork, choreography, and TV/film. Copyrights can be applied for much more easily (and cheaply) than patents and enable recourse for plagiarism or infringement.

Copyright Law and Filmmaking

Copyright law is obviously a major factor in film and television, because movies and TV are inherently original creative works, regardless if they are documentaries or works of fiction. Once a film is made, it is copyright protected under common law, but an official copyright should still be applied for to ensure the most amount of legal backing for seeking damages upon infringement.

In fact, many different aspects of a film can be covered by copyright. As soon as the script is written, whether as a draft or in final form, the plotline and various other details can already be protected. If the film uses an original score or original songs, those fall under copyright as well.

Of course, this works bi-directionally. Any music used in a film or TV episode must be cleared with the copyright owner for use, often for a fee. Music licensing and sync rights for things like TV episodes is a large part of musician revenue, and so will be strictly enforced. If the screenplay is highly similar to an existing film’s plot, or certain lines are identical, then infringement issues may arise there as well.

Trademarks and Trade Secrets

The way that trademarks and trade secrets can apply to the film industry is a bit less obvious, though no less important. Identical film titles or logos can be problematic, as well as the use of protected logos and brands in the film itself.

Brands may object if their protected likeness is used in a confusing or (more crucially) negative light, but this sort of use is oftentimes okay, even beneficial. Depending on the scope of the project, many brands will want the exposure, and contribute to funding the project in return.

Trade secrets are also common in the film industry. Confidentiality agreements are standard around movie production, to prevent leaks and other misappropriation in the lengthy process from inception to release. Set locations can be another trade secret. Specific filming techniques could temporarily be trade secrets as well, although they are more typically patented or event trademarked (think “Bullet Time” from The Matrix).

Patenting in the Film Industry

The film industry is a meeting point of creative artistry and technology. And anytime technology is involved, patents are as well. From Thomas Edison’s “kinetoscope” to today’s top-of-the-line IMAX recording and projection, filmmaking has come a long way. Significant patents along that path have been ones for rail-mounted camera systems, digital video (instead of relying on film), and many more.

Camera technology isn’t the only patentable area in the industry, however. Video editing software is a huge market both at the amateur and professional level, with companies such as Apple and Adobe competing on various platforms and filing design and utility patents left and right.

According to J.D. Houvener, San Francisco patent attorney, patents are a large part of why the film industry has grown so much technologically. “Patents enable inventors and entrepreneurs to bring their ideas to market safely and successfully. They reward innovation and foster growth in any field, since knowing that you can gain financially from putting in the work into a new film or editing technique will make you more likely to pursue that goal.”

In Summary

Intellectual property law is a hugely important facet of the film industry, and even a cursory knowledge of the field can benefit anyone involved. The four main types of IP law all apply to film and TV in different ways, from the initial writing stages to the final distribution process.

Copyrights govern much of the creative work that goes into a film, while trademarks and trade secrets protect brands and their techniques. Patents have set a technological foundation on which to build with even more innovation. Everyone involved in the industry should be aware of the necessary IP laws that apply and use them to their advantage, as well as avoiding infringement or violations. Always consult a professional attorney or firm if needed.

Katherine Lutz

Content Manager

A graduate of Florida State University, Katherine (Tori) Lutz is a Florida ...read more

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