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Film Authorship and Film Copyright in Europe

Sellors, C. Paul



This presentation begins with my research on film authorship and ends with my research on film copyright in Europe. One of the problems for understanding film authorship has been the presumption that the auteur – the film artist – is the same thing as the author of a film. This view was developed through film criticism over the history of the medium, notably in the 1910s and 20s in French cine-clubs and film magazines, and later from the 1940s in French film magazines such as Cahiers du cinéma. This view, though, rests on the assumption that only works of film art, however defined, are authored; the remainder are the result of an industrial process. I argue instead that any theory of film authorship has to account for the authorship of any film, regardless of its artistic merits. Certainly not all films are works of art – such a view would make the concept of film art trivial. Instead, I argue that film authorship rests in the construction of meaning in a film. Given the collaborative process of film production, and the medium’s reliance on both narrative and often antecedent literary sources, one person is rarely the necessary source of meaning in a film. Any theory of film authorship, I contend, must explain how a collective can author films. Following John Searle, I argue that the construction of meaning in film depends upon collective intentions, or ‘we intentions’. This theory helps me to avoid a problem outlined by Paisley Livingston: that all those who work on a film may be counted as authors of the film. ‘We intentions’ enables a distinction between the production collective and the authorial collective of any film.

Copyright aims to protect those who author works. Thus, in principle, there should be a correspondence between the definition of the author in film copyright and in film studies. However, film copyright legislation, especially in the common law jurisdictions like the UK, diverges from established understandings of film authorship. The 1911 UK Copyright Act classified film as both photographic and dramatic works, and assigned ownership of photographic negatives to producers and dramatic works to key production staff, typically directors and writers. Effective commercial exploitation then required assignment of dramatic rights to producers, with contract law regulating employment relationships. From 1956, UK copyright legislation classified films as entrepreneurial works only, assigning all rights to producers. Unlike artistic works, films had no originality criterion. The UK Copyright, Designs, and Patents Act 1988, as enacted, differed little in practice. Civil law jurisdictions differed. The 1957 French Act listed directors and authors of scenarios, adaptations, dialogue, and music as co-authors with moral and economic rights. Producers held neighbouring exploitation rights. The 1994 Polish Copyright Act largely mirrors the French law, but also includes cinematographers. Common law favoured commerce, civil law favoured authors. A 1992 European Union copyright harmonisation directive required member states to list producers and principal directors as authors or co-authors. Harmonisation did little to shift British priorities. The subsequent amendment to the UK Copyright, Designs, and Patents Act echoed the 1911 Act in structure and practice, leaving producers unfettered. Despite harmonisation, the values of British cinema remain aligned with those of common law countries rather than Continental Europe, and cast films as commercial products rather than meaningful acts of communication.


Sellors, C. P. (2015, November). Film Authorship and Film Copyright in Europe

Presentation Conference Type Lecture
Conference Location The Polish National Film School, Łódź, Poland
Start Date Nov 25, 2015
Deposit Date Mar 13, 2023

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