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Are You Planning to Produce a Documentary? Know Your Rules.

Updated: Dec 26, 2020

So finally, we all are ready to bid audio to this roller coaster year! This year locked us all in our rooms with our phones. Hence, entertainment was the only way to distract a bit. Personally, I enjoyed watching documentaries! I can recommend you to watch the documentaries like Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez, Miss Americana, The Pharmacist, the mysteries, Hillary, Becoming, etc. However, you should listen to my suggestion more seriously if you are planning to make a documentary! When you’re excited about starting your documentary project, it’s equally important to focus on legal issues to avoid future complications and litigation threats. Let me give you a hypothetical example to explain legal issues that you may face if you are not vigilant from the beginning while making a documentary film.

Ms. Lata is a domestic abuse survivor and social worker. Currently, she is running a shelter home for domestic abuse victims. Ms. Rhea is a filmmaker. She approached Ms. Lata told her that she wants to make a documentary film on her life and work. Ms. Lata agreed to the proposal of Ms. Rhea. Ms. Rhea recorded the interviews with Ms. Lata. She also took various video recordings and photographs of the shelter home and women and children living in the shelter home. She made a documentary film using these recordings and photographs. The documentary was critically acclaimed and won several awards. Eventually, she sold the documentary to a big OTT platform at a profitable price. Ms. Lata came to know that Ms. Rhea is making a profit from the documentary. That made her furious. She sent a legal notice to Ms. Rhea. In the legal Notice, Ms. Lata stated she had allowed her to make the documentary only for awareness purposes. She cannot sell the same for profit. She further alleged that Ms. Rhea included the video and photos of minor children living in the shelter home in the documentary without her consent. Besides, Ms. Lata claimed that Ms. Rhea had promised to show her the documentary before releasing the same. However, she breached that promise. Ms. Lata threatened to sue Ms. Rhea. Ms. Rhea found herself caught with a legal issue that she has never anticipated!

Any filmmaker can face the situation that Ms. Rhea is facing in the above illustration. Generally, disputes like this either results in a nasty legal battle or expensive court settlement. However, the precaution is better than cure! Hence, if you are planning to make a documentary film, you should not shy away from taking legal help. The most crucial point is to sign a detailed release agreement with your subject. In this article, I am giving you a brief that what should be there in the release agreement.

It is advisable to sign a detailed agreement with the person based on whom you are making the documentary. In agreement, you need to make it clear that he/she has given you the consent to use her/his appearance in your documentary. You have an absolute right to use the documentary for both commercial and non-commercial purposes. He/she shall not take any action in the future against you on the ground of breach of promise, privacy, defamation, copyright infringement, or any similar claim. You need to have an absolute creative right in your film. Your film is your intellectual property. The agreement should make it clear that any other person shall not have any claim over the same. It is always advisable to pay fair consideration to the person (based on whom you are making the documentary). You can decide how you want to make the payment of the consideration. It may be a lump sum money or a percentage in the profit! Besides, you need to have clear clauses mentioning the other terms and conditions. For example, you can have a clause specifying that your subject shall play an active role in the promotion of your documentary. You can have the right to terminate the agreement without any liability if you due to any reason you are unable to go ahead with the project. It is essential to have the consent of the parent/guardian, in case, you want to feature any minor in your document.


In case you are depicting a large group of individuals, you need to make them sign a group release form. In such a case, there is no particular person as the focal point. However, you are depicting a large number of people/groups. Further, you should have a location release form/permit in case you are shooting at any location/property. Please take permission from the owner for using any copyrighted work in your documentary. Last but the least, meet a lawyer before you start with your project. He/she shall not only guide you with all the agreements and release forms but also she/he shall watch the documentary (before you release) and cross-check that you have taken all the requite permissions.

I hope you like the article. Do share among your connections!

I wish you a happy new year !! Happy learning.




Picture credit: https://wtop.com/entertainment, https://www.premiumbeat.com/blog/5-best-places-pitch-documentaries/

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