Eyes on the Prize, Off the Shelf
Due to copyright issues, the landmark civil rights documentary can
no longer be shown on television or released on DVD.
By Thom Powers | January 16, 2005
"EYES ON THE PRIZE,'' the epic 1986 documentary series on the
civil rights movement, contains a scene showing Martin Luther King
Jr. on his 39th birthday -- his last -- in 1968. King, who was trying
to take on poverty and the Vietnam War simultaneously, was under
tremendous stress at the time, and his staff sang ''Happy Birthday''
in an attempt to cheer him up.
But the producers of ''Eyes'' almost had to leave the scene out
of the finished documentary. ''Happy Birthday,'' as it turns out,
was copyrighted in 1935 and, following the Sonny Bono Copyright
Extension Act of 1998, will remain so until at least 2030. Filmmakers
have been known to pay $15,000 to $20,000 for just one verse, according
to a recent report on documentary clearances issued by the Center
for Social Media.
The song ultimately stayed in the film, but don't plan on celebrating
King's birthday tomorrow by going to your local video store to buy
a copy of ''Eyes on the Prize.'' Thanks to rights restrictions on
archival material used in the documentary, the 14-hour chronicle
tracing the civil rights movement from the Montgomery bus boycotts
in the 1950s to the rise of black mayors in the 1980s can no longer
be released in new editions or shown on television. PBS's right
to air the film expired in 1993. Meanwhile, the VHS edition has
gone out of print and a DVD release would require relicensing. (Complete
sets of used videos are currently going for as much as $1,000 on
The problem goes beyond one documentary. ''We are crippling the
story-telling of our own culture by the rigidity of our copyright
interpretation,'' says Patricia Aufderheide, who cowrote the Center
for Social Media report ''Untold Stories,'' available at www.centerforsocialmedia.org.
When executive producer Henry Hampton and his Boston-based company
Blackside began making ''Eyes on the Prize'' in the 1980s, they
faced a particularly complex tangle of copyright issues on photographs,
TV news footage, and songs beyond what most documentarians face.
Since Hampton's death in 1998, at age 58, a group of his former
colleagues have been seeking ways to renew the expired licensing
agreements and get the program back on the air and into classrooms.
Last year the Ford Foundation, one of the series' original funders,
made a $65,000 grant to assess the needs of restoring master tapes,
securing new licenses, and, if necessary, re-editing the program
to remove images and music that can't be cleared.
''The majority of licensors have been hugely cooperative,'' says
Sandy Forman, an attorney for Blackside who's overseeing the project.
''One major music licensor has been a holdout. We're optimistic
that they will see the light.''
Wired News, which first reported the initiative last month, cited
an outside estimate that it would cost nearly $500,000 to secure
the rights. Forman says such estimates are premature until her team
concludes its research next month. ''Our goal is to clear rights
in perpetuity,'' she says. ''Whether we can do that is unclear,
[but] we're optimistic.''
Rena Kosersky, the series' music rights supervisor, is currently
researching what it will take to re-clear 130 other copyrighted
songs in the series, including Ray Charles' ''What'd I Say,'' Bob
Dylan's ''Blowin' in the Wind'' and -- ironically -- Berry Gordy's
''Money'' (that's what the publishers want). ''Music was a part
of the movement in a way that you cannot separate,'' says Kosersky.
(As Bernice Johnson Reagon, formerly a member of the Student Nonviolent
Coordinating Committee's Freedom Singers, recalls in one episode,
during the thick of the struggle ''there was more singing than talking.'')
The Ford-funded group hopes to raise funds to get the series back
in circulation by 2006 for the 20th anniversary of ''Eyes on the
Prize,'' forging ahead in the spirit of another civil rights anthem,
''We Shall Overcome'' -- which is also under copyright.
Thom Powers is writing a history of American documentary titled
''Stranger Than Fiction.''
© Copyright 2005 Globe Newspaper Company.