Licensing, The Right Footage

The Ups and Downs of Finding Footage from YouTube for Your Productions


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For amateur and professional filmmakers and content producers alike, YouTube has become for many, the first place to go when looking for footage of a range of topics past and present.

The sheer volume of material uploaded to YouTube, as well as the perception ease-of-use offered by the search engine interface, have changed the way we think about finding visual material both for consumption as well as professional productions.

However, for filmmakers seeking to use material found on YouTube in their final cut, here are a few of the ‘ups and downs’ of researching on the world’s most popular video platform.

Wide coverage, fast research

Needless to say, a massive range of footage from local television stations to major international broadcasters, newspapers, film distributors and online media – among many others – is either produced specifically for YouTube, or is uploaded for web distribution.

Because of the massive reach, YouTube offers, more and more commercial and institutional archive providers have taken to YouTube to reach new audiences and promote their collections. However, keep in mind that of all the archive footage available in physical formats around the world today only a fraction has been digitized, and not all that has been digitized is available online, let alone on YouTube.

This makes YouTube a great way to quickly “get an idea of what is out there” and documentary filmmakers are big fans of this practice : while looking for inspiration, facts and images all together to nurture a new idea, they enjoy spending days scrolling pages of content on YouTube. On top of it, the global scope of research (YouTube benefits from Google’s translation algorithms to search international content) makes it a fast way for them to cover a lot of ground early in their research or in the development phase.

“But who owns this stuff, and how do I license it?”

Thanks to YouTube’s powerful algorithms, you’ve been able to find some amazing piece of footage amongst the massive volume of the content resulting from your query. You might believe this is the perfect footage you were dreaming about and you already see how great it would fit in your edit, but did you ask yourself if this footage was licensable?

A piece of content needs to be secured to legally reproduce it in a film, but when a director falls in love with footage, it is rarely a concern and the legal aspect is often pushed away. Here at Archive Valley, we see a lot of producers and archive researches struggling at a very late stage of the production to track back the source of footage found on YouTube, with little or no success. And then they come to the sad conclusion they need to replace it.

Why it is so problematic and complicated to source YouTube footage? Though YouTube does work to fight the distribution of pirated material or material that infringes the copyright, there is no way for users to verify the ownership of content that is visible in YouTube’s search – other than the old-school way. What makes it a nightmare is when the uploaders of content do not necessarily own the rights, know who does, or know how to go about licensing material.

Also, there is only a certain amount that can be used under the terms of ‘fair use,’ and this way of going about using material can be legally tricky and limiting both editorially and in terms of the edit. Even if one chooses to claim fair use on footage – or if the footage is in the public domain and is free to use – on must go about the process of obtaining a high-resolution copy. But from whom?

All of these questions and challenges can, of course, be answered and overcome. And for certain content, especially amateur or UGC content, a basic licensing agreement can usually be negotiated with a layperson or other YouTube user.

However, when doing archival research on YouTube, one must be aware of these pitfalls at the beginning of the research process rather than at the end, when the production is nearing picture-lock and footage must be cleared.

Not so fast…

Producer and archive researcher Amanda Messenger warns of this, as recent experience of hers highlights.

“I was brought onto a project about the rise and evolution of American Hip Hop two months before the final delivery deadline to clear any and all archival footage and music rights,” she says. “The overarching problem I saw from the beginning was that the director and producer, who had been working on it for almost two years in total, thought they knew “the deal” with archives, and therefore told me it would be pretty easy. They said there were many [images] that could be “fair use” and just a handful that would need to be properly cleared.”

“However,” Messenger continues, “I quickly noticed that there was no running list of what archival footage was currently in the edit and furthermore, everything had been pulled from Youtube or the like on the internet. I was able to get the xml text file from the editor (an exported list of the file names of the footage with timecode), which was only partially helpful – the names of many files which had been ripped from the internet were of course gibberish. From this, I could painstakingly watch the edit, with the xml list next to me, and make a list of archival footage. This took hours and hours.”

“When I was finally able to have a meeting with the producer, show him the list and explain that there were literally hundreds of clips of various lengths, he was very surprised,” Messenger remembers. “I think he honestly had no idea, and had largely left the director to his own devices from the beginning. Thus began the painstaking search for clearances and legal confirmation of fair use rights.”

Ultimately, YouTube is a compelling way for content creators to engage with new sources and discover new archives is  – but even then, the platform does very little to make connecting with these sources and licensing from them easier. It’s up to the individual footage provider to make that connection clear. A new-generation platform for professional content creators and archive researchers, Archive Valley solves this problem by connecting you directly with experts who send you unique material for your project.

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