Moonshine Moonshot Blog

A filmmaker’s guide to licensing materials

Dec 20, 2022

A filmmaker’s guide to licensing materials 


One of the first lessons I was ever taught as an early-career filmmaker was this: never use another artist’s work without seeking the proper approvals first. This goes for everything from stock imagery, to YouTube footage, archival material, animation, art, music – even a capella renditions of famous songs! 


In fact, many moons ago Mike and I were filming with a participant for one of our documentaries when the participant burst into a version of Take Me Home, Country Roads by John Denver. It was poignant and touching and, thankfully, we caught it on camera. We knew before we even watched the footage back that it would end up in the film. 


After the interview, we started thinking – maybe we could licence the original song and include that in the film as well. So we investigated …and thank goodness we did! It turns out we’d actually have to pay a license fee to use the participant’s take on the song too. 

Phew – close one! 


Why am I telling you this story? 


Because if we had bypassed that step and distributed the film without all the correct legal permissions, we could’ve been facing some serious copyright infringement penalties. We might even have had to can the documentary entirely. Yep – you read that correctly. All that work disintegrated over a little legal loophole … can you imagine! 



The thing is, many filmmakers spend months, even years, mapping out shoots, conducting interviews and piecing their documentary together. But they don’t know the ins and outs of the legal aspects of their production. 


Which is why I thought it was time to talk about it on the Moonshine Moonshot series. The last thing I want is for you to make an awesome moving picture, only to find out right at the end that you can’t distribute it because you didn’t secure the necessary rights and permissions. 


So let’s find out how to protect yourself and your film from any copyright infringement. 


What is licensing? 


If you’ve ever watched a movie and heard a well known song – think Under Pressure by Queen and David Bowie or Stayin’ Alive by the Bee Gees –  it means that the filmmakers received a license to use it (well, I hope they did at least!). But this actually goes for any music you hear in a film, TV commercial, YouTube clip or video game. 


Trust me – even if you want to use some obscure song released decades ago, you need to seek out the proper permissions. The recording artist will likely find out – or worse, their lawyers will. And then you could be facing all sorts of issues, that won’t only cost you time and money. It could mean the end of your film entirely.  


So the long and short of it is this: if you want to use someone else’s work in your film, you have to seek approval. Not only is this your legal responsibility as a filmmaker, it’s also just common courtesy to your fellow artists!


It’s worth noting that licensing doesn’t just apply to music. You’ll also need to licence other materials, like:

• Stock footage 

• Images 

• Another creator’s footage 

• Archival material 

• Animation

• Art


There’s also a few quirks that can come into play. For one, there are some materials that you can use without needing to seek a license. But usually this only applies when the content you’re producing isn’t for any commercial gain or it’s only intended to be seen by a very small audience. 


Which is why it’s always wise to check on the source of the material you want to use and any licenses attached to it. 


To add another layer of complexity, there’s a stack of materials that fall under a “Creative Commons” license – a public copyright licence that enables the free distribution of a copyrighted work. 


John F Kennedy’s “moonshot” speech falls under this category, which is something we used in our feature film Conquering Cancer: Making history by eliminating cervical cancer everywhere. We had assumed we’d be in for a heafty licence fee- nice surprise on this one!


So what happens if you rip some footage off YouTube and add it to your film?


Well for one, whoever owns that footage could sue you. Which can derail the whole distribution plan for your film, because a broadcaster or streaming service won’t be able to publish it if it includes unlicensed footage, imagery or music.  And they usually ask for the licensing paperwork so keep a good filing system.


You might even receive a cease and desist letter from the original creator – and therefore be legally required to pull your title from market entirely. Yikes! All your hard work undone just because you didn’t follow a few legal steps. 


The good news is that you can use anything you have a license for. If you receive a licence to use the material from the copyright owner (and use it within the scope of the license), then there’s no risk of you infringing any copyright. 


Common license terms might include the duration (how long the license lasts for), geography (the area the license applies to) and the amount of people it will likely be seen by and how much of the licenced work you intend to use i.e you may only need 15seconds not the full content of the song, footage or similar


Isn’t licensing really expensive? 


This is a great question and the honest answer is, yes. It can be. Just a few weeks ago Mike had a conversation with a music supervisor in Hollywood about using a particular song in one of our upcoming productions. 


The quote was in excess of $100,000! 


But other times, licensing fees can be reasonable, even minimal. And if they fall under the Creative Commons license that I mentioned earlier, there’ll be no fee at all. 


The key takeaway is to check the licensing requirements, decide if the fee is worth budgeting for and go from there. If it’s too expensive, find another solution – just don’t (please!) use the material without the proper approvals or crediting the original source.

You also need to have a licence agreement with any participants who may provide photos or footage for you to use.  They may not charge any fees, but you do need the paperwork so make sure you get a signed agreement from them for the use.  And yes, I’ve been asked to provide this to a broadcaster as well.  And it can be tricky to chase months after the participant provided you with the photos or footage.  Can you believe I once had to provide text messages confirming proof of permission!!



Before I sign off I do realise this might sound like a lot of information. Which is why I always recommend seeking guidance from a copyright lawyer or your production lawyer if you’re unsure. You can certainly do the initial license checks yourself and this can save you lots of $$$, but it’s always worthwhile seeking professional advice before delivery to confirm you are in fact complying with all the licensing agreements you’ve created to avoid major headaches downstream. 

If you want to get super nerdy about it, you can also check out Arts Law Australia for some extra background.

Finally, you can always tap into some of my knowledge about licensing materials –  I’m only an email away. You can connect with me right now by emailing [email protected] 

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