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If James Cameron can lead a $237 million budget for Avatar and still face lawsuit after lawsuit claiming copyright violation, it’s safe to say no one is immune.

Fortunately, while getting out of trouble can get expensive, staying out of it is often free—as long as you understand a few basic principles to avoid confrontations both in court and on location.

1. The Expectation of Privacy

As a general rule, public places have a green light as filming locations; what you see is what you can film. Likewise, filming people in public is usually green-lit as long as you capture them incidentally—meaning they become part of your background, not your subject. But be careful, there is an expectation of privacy.

2. High-Profile Exclusions

Even if you’re filming them from public property across the street, certain subjects are off-limits for security reasons. This includes military installations, government buildings, and some assets of mass transportation (e.g., airports, tunnels, and train stations). Celebrities and politicians, meanwhile, are excluded in certain ways.

3. The Concept of Copyright

Simply put, a copyright is a protective right a creator holds over the work they produce. If someone wants to use someone else’s work—such as an audio track, video clip, or specific plot element—they must first obtain permission or be liable for damages. Copyright can also extend to how someone’s image is used.

4. The Importance of Permits

When filming commercially, additional restrictions can vary by locality—so always check with your local film office before filming to inquire about the need for permits and insurance.

5. Following Proper Channels

Finally, it’s important to remember that while media activism has its place, that place is rarely the film set. If you’re passionate that the First Amendment allows for filming on train tracks, take your stance through the proper channels.

Want to read more?


Our free eBook contains all of these sections with much more detail and many more examples. If you are just a casual user, then this summary will be enough – but if you want to get serious about film rights, we’d suggest downloading and reading the entire eBook.

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