Documentary Filmmaker Sues AP for Stealing Footage

Hart Island: An American Cemetery film One Sheet - P 2013

Hart Island: An American Cemetery film One Sheet - P 2013

How worried are non-fiction filmmakers about reporters taking their work?

The Associated Press is being sued by the documentary makers of the film Hart Island: An American Cemetery, about a small potter's field island in New York City where prison laborers bury the region's unclaimed mass dead in mass graves. The film features four individuals and their six-year struggle to navigate city bureaucracy to locate a body mistakenly buried and properly grieve.

The reason why footage of Hart Island is so valuable is that NYC's Department of Corrections prohibits filming there. Filmmaker Melinda Hunt is the executive director of The Hart Island Project, a charitable organization that spent three years negotiating with authorities to get permission to shoot footage.

Now, The Hart Island Project says that after working so long to gain access, and then two years more editing the documentary, portions of the film were ripped and incorporated into an AP video report without authorization.

According to the complaint filed in New York federal court, AP reporter Bonny Ghosh was preparing a story about the area and opened up discussions with The Hart Island Project about an interview and possible video footage of Hart Island shot from the ground. Licensing terms are said to have been discussed between the parties, but no agreement was formalized, says the lawsuit.

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Ghosh allegedly then downloaded the film and spliced footage of at least six shots into an AP report titled "Identifying Remains in New York's Potter Field," with a video that was distributed through USA Today, Huffington Post, Yahoo and other news outlets.

The lawsuit (read in full here) adds that the original film was edited to music composed by a jazz pianist and that the AP report had sequences that imitated the "pace, timing, transition sequence and edits" of the film. Even though the jazz music was stripped, the plaintiff suggests that the jazz-inspired pace of the documentary film was taken.

The makers of Hart Island: An American Cemetery also go out of their way in the complaint of painting AP as being hypocritical on intellectual property, vigorously defending their own interests but allegedly not caring about the rights of others. AP attorney Laura Malone is quoted as testifying before a FTC hearing, "We do need to be able to say that we, the content owners, we, the content owners, get to set the parameters by which people can republish our stuff."

Besides a straight copyright infringement claim, the lawsuit also has several other interesting causes of action including secondary copyright liability for contributing to the alleged infringement of its affiliates, removal of copyright information because the AP's video editing software allegedly bypassed or removed or altered copyrighted management information, circumvention of copyright protection systems because the AP allegedly was able to get around Quicktime technological measures designed to prevent editing and access control, and unjust enrichment because instead of using its own resources to negotiate a film permit, the AP allegedly used footage illicitly.

The lawsuit seeking maximum statutory damages was filed by attorney Eric Adler.

A spokesperson for AP tells The Hollywood Reporter that it has not been served and therefore has no comment.

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