Q. Our congregation has an excellent choir. Our meetinghouse is a popular place for community dinners and other public events. Recently, one of our fellowship members produced a movie to tell our story to newcomers. Questions are now being raised about copyright and privacy issues. If we sponsor a Christmas fair and we sing Christmas carols from the Unitarian Universalist hymn book, do we need legal permission? Can we film visitors as they walk past our holiday displays? The  movie includes crowd scenes with two or three hundred people present.

A. Peter Bowden, a children’s television producer who also runs UU Planet Ministry & Media, which offers growth consulting and video production services to congregations, has this to say:

I’m not a lawyer, so please conduct your own thorough research and consult experts. However, in my work with producing documentary-style content for broadcast TV we always get a release form with this simple guideline—if you can tell who it is, get a personal release.”

“When filming crowds at public performances and other large events we generally post signs at entrances to the event notifying those attending that we are filming,” he says. “By entering the event they are thereby giving consent. When we do this we take pictures of the signs to document they were posted.”

“In short,” he says, “signed releases for everything! For people, for corporate logos, for property, for pets.  In the spring of 2009 I made a video for our congregation’s capital campaign (http://www.youtube.com/channingchurch). If you look at that video, which is primarily stills edited together, I only used recent footage with people I recognized and thought we’d have a chance of contacting. We went through the video and listed every person clearly recognizable. All of these people were contacted for permission. We went with simple verbal and email permission to be included and were explicit in stating the video would be posted online. I would have liked written releases but the verbal/email is better than many churches do.”

The dangers of not being thorough? “All it takes,” Bowden says, “is one person to discover they are in your video (or their former spouse and child are) and you’ve opened a can of worms. Maybe not a lawsuit, but you can quickly regret not doing the work to get permissions. If you have existing footage you want to use you’ll need to make your own judgment call.”

He adds that some public events, such as newsworthy gatherings, have different standards. “As for music, if it has a valid copyright you need to get permission to use it in a video. Just last week I saw a UU video on YouTube that had a notice posted under it stating that the audio for the video had been disabled due to potential copyright violation. In the YouTube environment people and organizations are getting very sloppy. I advise organizations not to fall into this trap.” Information on obtaining copyright permissions for some UU materials is here.

In addition to his work with congregations,  Bowden created and moderates the website uuplanet.tv, a Unitarian Universalist video network. Through this site he is collecting and sharing all of the best UU television and video content from across the web.

About the Author
Don Skinner
Don Skinner is editor of InterConnections and a member of the Shawnee Mission UU Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

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