Connected Events

Pre-Discussion: A Documentary World Transformed: the American Fair Use Movement

Presentation by Gordon Quinn (producer/director) with
John Junkerman (director)

- Gordon Quinn

Artistic Director and founding member of Kartemquin Films, Gordon Quinn has been making documentaries for over 45 years. With his first film, Home for Life (1966), Quinn established the direction he would take for the next four decades, making cinéma vérité films that investigate and critique society by documenting the unfolding lives of real people. At Kartemquin, Quinn created a legacy that is an inspiration for young filmmakers and a home where they can make high-quality, social-issue documentaries, including Hoop Dreams (1994, YIDFF ’95) and Stevie (2002, YIDFF 2003).

During the filming of Hoop Dreams, a family happened to sing “Happy Birthday” at a birthday party and instantly created a new line in the budget. Incredibly enough, the 19th century song is still under copyright and owned by Warner Music, so Gordon Quinn and his collaborators had to pay up to include the scene. Such was the state of documentary filmmaking in the United States around the turn of the century. The lack of legal clarity, along with a “usual ways of doing things” that clearly favored large corporations, was squelching free speech and by extension killing documentary culture.

Quinn, a rights holder himself, was one of the leaders of a movement bent on doing something about the situation. They set about to redefine fair use, the limited and transformative use of work under copyright without permission in order to enrich society and stimulate the arts. In contrast to the anything-goes culture of the remix generation, Quinn and associates organized filmmakers, scholars, distributors, and lawyers. They built a compelling case for fair use, and then carefully approached distributors and television networks. One by one, they came on board and soon a transformation was underway.

Quinn and his collaborators organized their efforts as a social movement. They saw the principle of fair use as cutting straight to the heart of democracy. Fair use enabled a healthy flow and exchange of ideas. It energized artists by putting them in direct dialogue with their predecessors. The specifics of their movement may not transport cleanly to the legal framework of other countries, but they do provide an example of tenacious organizing and smart strategizing that transformed working situation for filmmakers. They are an inspiring example of a movement that has resulted in a revolution in American documentary.

Abé Mark Nornes