Film Clearance Basics

By Categories: Copyrights

What is film clearance?
Film clearance is the process of acquiring the required permission for all aspects of a film production. The necessary clearances can include sets, actors/extras, music, stock film, art, posters, products/brands, books, broadcasts, computer programs, dramatic works, photographs, etc. Film clearance is necessary to avoid liability, acquire E/O insurance, and avoid any general copyright/trademark issues.

What should I provide to the attorney for review?
You should first provide your attorney with an annotated guide/script. This script should describe every character, place, and event (real or fictitious) in the film. It should also contain all components which are based upon underlying property/work. The attorney will review the script to help you determine the appropriate clearance needs for your film.

What types of clearances do I need?
Several types of clearances may be needed when producing a film. They generally fall under three catagories: a) property, b) people, and c) locations.

a) property – This includes material which was created by someone other than the filmmakers. Some common examples include music, stock film, books/plays upon which a film is based, etc. Musical clearance, for example, requires obtaining synch licenses which grant the filmmakers permission to synchronize the music with the visual elements of the film. If you wish to re-record a song that someone else has written, you need only get a synch license from the music publisher, However, if you wish to use a particular pre-existing recording of a song, you will also need licenses from both the music publisher and the recording label. Books, plays, and newspapers used in the film must be cleared by the publisher. Footage or videos used in the film must be cleared by the copyright holder. The same goes for and photographs and any other type of art. Computer programs should be cleared by the software publishers. Some works may be in the public domain, meaning you do not need to acquire permission to use the work in your film. See the end of this FAQ for a further discussion of public domain works.

b) people – Releases should be obtained from all persons appearing in the film. The release form should contain provisions that allow the producer of the film to make the necessary changes, such as fictionalizing characters, changing sequence of events, deleting material, etc. If the film is a documentary or fact-based, filmmakers must consider the individuals’ rights, such as the right of privacy and publicity. You should also obtain releases from all crew, whether on screen or off, working on the production in the event that they are inadvertently captured in the film or “behind the scenes” footage is used in the future.

c) locations – Before you can shoot at some locations, you will need to obtain film permits from either through the city or the state (depending on the location’s requirements). The state film commission can advise you of the requirements for each location. To obtain a permit, you will need to provide proof of insurance, and there may be additional fees if you plan to use public property. You should also obtain location agreements from the owners of the specific property where you plan to shoot. There are two parts that make up the location agreement. First you must have a lease or a rental agreement for actual use of the property. Second you must obtain a written consent to photograph the property and use these photographs in the film. However, if background is non-distinctive, a location release may not be necessary.

When should I get these clearances?
It is wise to obtain these clearances before starting the film. Attempting to go back after the film has been completed can make the clearance process very complicated. For instance, it might be difficult to locate all the who appear in the film or to track down the location used in a particular shot. When you obtain all necessary clearances before starting to shoot and/or while making the film because, everything is easily accessible.

How do I get these clearances?
There are several different ways to obtain clearances. For all the people involved, there are generic forms that can be filled out that basically state the terms of the agreement. An attorney can help you tailor these agreements to your specific film or address any particular concerns you have about an agreement. For music clearance, you can go through EMG Music Clearance. (, they either help you do it yourself or do it for you for a fee. For clearance with books and basically any other copyright you can go to the Copyright Clearance Center (CCC) (

How much does the process cost?
The cost of a synch license is negotiated with the copyright owner, unlike other licenses such as the re-recording of a song that have a set statutory rate. The cost of a synch license varies depending on how you want to use the work in your film (i.e., will it be prominently featured or merely in the background). It will also depend on the type of work you are creating such as commercials, feature films, documentary films, TV shows, etc. Licenses for other types of copyrighted property are also negotiated and depend on your use of the property.

How long does the process take?
This depends on your specific circumstances. However, after sending the publisher all the correct required information (see below), you will likely receive a response from them within 10 days. If you do not, you should follow up with the publisher to make sure they received your information, but you should not contact them before the 10 day period is over.

What information does the copyright owner need to grant a license?
For music, the copyright owner will need to send the publisher:

1. Timing or duration of the song; visuals accompanying the song

2. Where your production will be seen and for how long

3. Titles of other songs you plan to use, particularly if you have already gotten permission

4. If you have no budget for clearance, say so in the letter, but publishers will often give priority to requests that offer a token fee ($25-100 per song) because it shows respect for the value of the copyright

5. Provide the publisher with an address, phone, fax, email so they can reply quickly

For other property, the copyright owner may have different requirements which you can inquire about, but most likely they will want to know much of the same as listed above, specifically:

1. Timing or duration of the shot of the property; visuals

2. Accompanying the property

3. Where your production will be seen and for how long

4. Provide the publisher with an address, phone, fax, email so they can reply quickly

What does not require a license?
You will not need a license for a work that is in the public domain. You should be cautious, however, when determining whether you need a license or not. If you are using a recorded song, the underlying song may be in the public domain, but not the recording. You will need a license to use the recording even though you might not for the underlying song. The same is true if you are using a film clip that includes a song. The song may be in the public domain, but not the footage. Because copyright durations have changed several times over the history of copyright laws in the United States, and because there are sometimes specific rules that apply to one work but not to another, it is always wise to consult with an attorney to assure that a work is actually in the public domain before using it

Where can I obtain stock footage to use in my film?
Historic Films

Museum of Broadcast Television Archives

WPA Film Library (Women’s magazines, 60’s film from London)

Old Film (Northeast Historic Film; regional archive; home movies; amateur films; New England)

Library of Congress (Internet Archive; Movie Archive)

AV Geeks (stock; archival; news footage; network)

SabuCat (specialize in trailers of B movies)

UCLA Film and Television Archive

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