For the past 10 years, the civil rights documentary Eyes on the Prize has been unavailable on video or television because of expired copyright licenses. What sort of copyright licenses?
For example, the film includes footage of a group of people singing "Happy Birthday" to Martin Luther King. Incredibly, "Happy Birthday" is under copyright and some rights holders believe that they should be given licensing fees if the song appears in any film, even a documentary. (Yes that's correct, "Happy Birthday" is restricted under copyright--so if you've ever sung it in a restaurant or a park, you could literally be breaking the law.)
But "Happy Birthday" is just the beginning. Eyes on the Prize is made up of news footage, photographs, songs and lyrics from the Civil Rights Movement that are tangled up in a web of licensing restrictions. Many of these licenses had expired by 1995 and the film's production company, Blackside, could not afford the exorbitant costs of renewing them. "Eyes on the Prize" has been unavailable to the public ever since.
Downhill Battle has come under fire for using the documentary to advocate copyright reform. That's not something the cinetrix is going shoot her mouth off about here [she'll just point out the name of the law: the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act of 1998]. But having done her time in the video store trenches during the transition from VHS to DVD as the leading rental format, she can tell you a little bit about videotape.
The cinetrix has seen firsthand the beatings that videotapes can take after repeated viewings. Most videotape has a shelflife of a scant 15 years, and for a variety of reasons--copyright among them--not every flick out on VHS is likely to make the leap to DVD. All it takes to accelerate a video's demise is, say, one well-meaning professor who assigns his or her class an out-of-print movie that's still available at the local video store on VHS. By the time it has been through 30 VCRs, you can almost certainly kiss that irreplaceable flick goodbye. Sorry, cinemaphiles and members of the community!
With that scenario fresh in your minds, a few dates: Eyes on the Prize came out in 1986, and PBS's right to air it expired in 1993. You do the math.
For that reason alone, if you do have access to one of the fragile, extant VHS copies through your local library or school, you should try to put as many eyes in front of Eyes as possible, and not just on February 8. [Check out the PBS lesson plans that accompanied the doc's broadcast, too.] Just do the cinetrix, and your fellow citizens, a favor: Clean the heads on your VCR and test it with an expendable videotape first.
And once you're done watching, be kind and rewind. Gently.