We Own Our Own Copyrights

The simplest distinction often tells us all we need to know. 

In the music and film worlds there are artists who own the copyrights to their work and those who do not. 

The music industry just honored Paul McGuiness, the long time manager of U2.  The Edge and Bono praised him with these words:

“We own our own master tapes, we own our own copyrights…we were designed to survive and we were designed for something much harder: we were designed to survive success. And Paul, it was your design.”

When a large record label signs a new artist the label owns the copyrights and the master tapes. Most artists live under this regime throughout their lives.

The movie business uses a similar model. When you make a film for a movie studio or they release the indie movie you have worked so hard to make—the studio owns the copyright.

Control comes with copyright ownership.  Control over everything.  If the artist owns the copyrights—she/he is in control.  If the studio or label owns them-they are in control.

U2 did not own the copyrights to their work when they started as a band.  They had to fight for them once they became successful.  Success brought them the leverage required to fight and win back control.

U2 believed that control was important for their continued creative and business success.

George Lucas followed a similar path. Fox financed the first Star Wars movie and owned the copyright.  When it was successful Lucas decided to finance the sequel himself.  As a result, he owned the copyright.

When his distribution deal with Fox came up for renewal, Lucas got back the copyright to the first movie.  Only then, would he let Fox distribute the Star Wars sequels.  He had leverage and used it.

U2 and George Lucas acquired their own copyrights and bet on themselves.

Today, more musical artists and filmmakers can do the same. 

In the past, you could keep your copyright only if you achieved monstrous success and gained leverage.

Today that leverage lies close at hand and can be found before success arrives. 

But you have to take the time to notice that leverage and use it.

Take these six artists as examples:  Aziz Ansari, Zoe Keating, Joshua Oppenheimer, Lisanne Pajot & James Swirsky and Amanda Palmer.

All of them have created movies and songs that they distribute, market and sell.  

And they own them.

Study these creators and the strategies they employed. Everything they have done to connect with an audience lies within your reach.

Each leveraged some combination of the following: Bit Torrent, Facebook, Indie GoGo, iTunes, Kickstarter, Tumblr, Twitter, VHX, WordPress and YouTube.  (And some others I am sure I forgot.) 

These tools do not require you to sign over your copyright.

If you want real leverage you must combine these tools.  One tool by itself is not sufficient.

That combination can yield significant results. 

No one teaches artists how to do this.  No film school prepares its students for this work. You have to learn on the job.

You might have a manager, a lawyer, a web developer, a digital marketing expert or distributor assist you, but if you want to bet on yourself,

Design for success.

Own your own copyrights.


About Chris Dorr

I consult with companies on digital media strategy and business development. Clients include Samsung, MTV Networks, Tribeca Film Festival, Shaw Media and Canadian Film Center. I created the Future of Film blog for Tribeca. I have worked in the movie business for Disney Studios, Universal Pictures, Scott Free and in the digital media business for Intertainer, Sony and Nokia. Contact me at [email protected] or follow me at @chrisdorr
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  • brianoleary

    I agree with the idea of challenging artists to retain their copyrights (rather than assign them to publishers, record labels and movie studios). The sobering moment, of course, comes when we recognize that U2 and George Lucas were able to regain their rights once they had leverage.

    As available tools reduce barriers to entry, the high cost to produce and distribute a song, an album or a book has dropped enough to let motivated creative artists distribute their own, copyrighted works. Movies are still relatively expensive, but there are crowd-funded examples that offer some hope.

    There is a debate going on now in book publishing, loosely characterized as “professional writers” versus “self-published authors”. Traditional players work pretty hard to dismiss the growing volume of self-published (and own-copyrighted) works as something akin to a hobbyist’s purview. Like you, I wonder how long that perspective will persist.

    • chrisdorr

      Brian, thanks for your comments. It is fascinating how self distribution or self publishing is derided by those who are the “professionals” in any given area-whether they are filmmakers, musical artists or authors. Yet the audience does not care, it only wants-what it wants. The tools I mention are available to anyone who wishes to use them and I believe they will only get better. How long before the “self” in self distribution or publishing simply disappears and it is simply called publishing or distribution and who does it is immaterial. All that matters is that authors, musical artists and filmmakers reach an audience that is big enough to support them. This has only happened in a few cases, but there is no reason to believe it will not continue to grow and more examples will emerge.

  • http://mauvais-genre.com/ Benoît Mars

    It’s funny how things are widely different from a not so far country across the Atlantic: France. Here, the control of our work is not linked to copyright: the copyright owner (producer, studio, label…) has the material rights on the work, and the money that comes with, but artistic control is fully owned by the artist (musician, director…). It does not change the financial part of the problem but it lets to the artist the final decision on his work. Thus, a “director’s cut” is something that does not make sense: the final cut must be legally approved by the director.

    Maybe it can explain why, on the other side, self distribution is quite non-existent in our country. Established artists don’t bother to imply themselves in the material aspect of their projects, which causes such troubles nowadays in our film production industry.

    • chrisdorr

      Benoit, thanks for your comment. Does this limit the amount of money that an artist gets from their work, even as it does not limit their artistic control?

      • http://mauvais-genre.com/ Benoît Mars

        Not really: generally we get a decent percentage on the box office incomes or/and some negotiable contract fees. Less merchandising but really nothing to complain…

        • chrisdorr

          Wish that were the case in the United States.

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