The British film company that produced The Animals Film — the first film to document the way humans treat non-human animals — has threatened to sue People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) for copyright infringement. According to the blog THR, Esq., the production company that holds the rights to The Animals Film, Beyond the Frame Ltd., has accused PETA of using footage from the film in many of the animal rights group’s controversial productions, including its “State of the Union Undress” in which a striptease in front of Congress is followed by depictions of animal cruelty, and an HBO documentary about PETA and its founder Ingrid Newkirk.

In an angry letter to PETA, Beyond the Frame asserted that it would have been “very reluctant” to grant PETA a license to use its footage, given Victor Schonfeld’s (director of The Animals Film) opposition to PETA’s routine strategy of using naked young women to publicize its animal rights agenda. The company said that, if it were to grant PETA a license, it would charge a “substantial premium” because of director Schonfeld’s disagreement with PETA’s tactics. PETA offered to pay 8,000 British pounds to license the footage, but the production company refused to accept less than 470,000 pounds (approximately $750,000). PETA responded by asking a California judge for a declaratory judgment of non-infringement and a permanent injunction prohibiting the production company from “publicly charging” infringement.

PETA Human Meat Campaign

Regardless of the manner in which PETA presents imagery of animal suffering, it seems odd that Schonfeld, an ostensible supporter of animal welfare, would attempt to charge an animal rights group a premium for the use of his footage. The director laments that “we inflict suffering on other species . . . because we can get away with it,” yet he is apparently willing to use his copyright protection to help keep this suffering hidden (or at least, to make it a whole lot more costly to expose).

PETA will likely assert that its use of the copyrighted footage was a fair use, in which case a judge will need to determine whether the group’s use of the images was “transformative,” and whether the amount and nature of the footage used was appropriate in light of the nature of the copyrighted material and PETA’s use of that material. Additionally, the court will have to consider whether the use would cause excessive economic harm to the copyright holder. Although fair use is a flexible doctrine that produces unpredictable results, PETA’s use, at least in “State of the Union Undress” may very well be fair.

The juxtaposition of animal cruelty with a political striptease seems to be a “transformative” use; and, each piece of footage is shown briefly in a montage that PETA’s editors presumably assembled (although I have not seen The Animals Film, I presume that the entire montage was not lifted directly from the film). Additionally, it is also difficult to imagine that PETA’s brief propaganda piece could serve as a market substitute for Schonfeld’s film, and therefor any economic harm would seem to be de minimus.

Ultimately, Schonfeld deserves credit and compensation for his work, but demanding $750,000 for the use of footage of horrible animal suffering that the public needs to see — use by a non-profit group no less — just seems wrong.

-- Emily Beverage

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One Response to PETA Makes a New Enemy: Copyright-Holding Filmmakers

  1. Norm says:

    As a non-neutral observer of PETA, since I happen to like hamburgers, it has been my perception that they are an orginazation which is out of control. While, in theory, they have a useful role to fill, when they choose to do really crazy things, they alienate the people who are sitting on the fence. It’s like the top leadership is a pack of wild juveniles who have never heard the words, “no no.” In summation, they should stick to their core principles, which is to look out for animals, and leave the cutesy tricks to the professionals.