The question Do open source movies exist? and specifically this comment made me curious about Open Source movies. It seems like most Open Source movies are animated, which makes sense since you can make all content yourself and assure it's licensed appropriately and making additional content is feasible for other people.

Suppose however, that I want to make a documentary, using original interviews, original footage and stock footage (from whatever source), as well as music that may or may not be original. Aside from picking the right license (probably some CC license), how would I go about making sure that this movie can not only technically be remixed and redistributed, but that it is also practically viable, without anyone having to fear breaking some sort of copyright law?

  • 2
    Are you sure you would want that? Documentaries are about telling the truth. Making it easy for people to do modifications would make it possible for people to "bugfix" your work by distorting its message to fulfill their political agenda.
    – Philipp
    Jul 11, 2015 at 7:51
  • 1
    @Philipp I believe that keeping things open will remove bias, not add to it.
    – overactor
    Jul 14, 2015 at 6:54

3 Answers 3


I think the basic principle is universal and applies to movies as well as to software: make sure everyone can have everything you used to produce the release.

In the editing process, soundtrack will be combined with the video, some interviews may stay unused, some footage may be cut short etc. To produce an alternative version it would be convenient to have the music in separate audio files and it would be necessary to have the original unedited footage. It's also a good idea to provide the original project files for video editors you are using.

  • Could you address some of the points raised in this comment?
    – overactor
    Jul 11, 2015 at 5:18
  • It's probably a good idea to ask the interviwees and other participants to release specify exact license for their material (although explaining what a license is and how to choose one can be tricky unless the documentary is itself about open source ;) If someone wants immutable sections, they could use GFDL, for instance.
    – dmbaturin
    Jul 11, 2015 at 13:17

On the technical side: pretend that the motherboard on your old computer died. You just got a new computer and you want to create a director's cut of your documentary. What do you need to copy over from your old hard drive? That questions should really help to guide you. You're obviously not going to recreate something that you can just drag and drop. So for someone else to be able to do the same, they would need access to all of the items that you just copied over. One thing people sometimes miss is editable pictures. A PNG is great but if you have a GIMP file with a bunch of layers, that GIMP file will allow you to easily change the final PNG. That is part of your "source." Also, don't forget your audio and video mixing project files.

On the legal side (IANAL): make sure that all of your source material allows modified and unmodified redistribution. Make sure that it also allows combination with other media (that may be under a different license!).

Regarding the comment referenced in the question: The first two points in the comment relate to whether or not you have authorship rights over the material. If you do (i.e. the actors/subjects have given their consent for you to use the footage however you please; presumably they have if you've made clear your intent to create an open source documentary) then you can assign whatever license you want to it. See above paragraph. If you do not, then you presumably aren't using that footage for your film anyway so it's not part of your "source," so no problem. The second two points are items that are not part of your "source" since you're presumably not going to include junk footage in your final film. You can distribute or not distribute it, doesn't really matter either way. Hope that helps!

  • Could you address some of the points raised in this comment?
    – overactor
    Jul 11, 2015 at 5:18
  • Sure, just added some info. Hope that helps answer your question! Jul 11, 2015 at 7:30

On the surface it seems open sourcing documentaries is not difficult. Just put it under the right license and publish. But there are some problems to it.

First the thing you have to do with all things, if you want to open source them: release also the source. For an documentation this means the raw shootings without color and brightness adjustments you made later and without extra audio tracks like music you put in the background. The music you put in the background should be also available in the sources, but separated. Probably source material for animations or graphs you put into the movie. For all parts you need the consent of all contributors to make their part of the work open source.

But that is not all. You have to consider that more than just copyright influences restrictions on creative works. In many area of work much of them doesn't matter, but documentaries touch some of them. And all naturally depends on the exact law in the jurisdiction you live in (or the one you shoot the movie).

One is discussion in the european union at this point. A new proposal is discussed by some under the angle that it might restrict the freedom of panorama in the european union. Freedom of panorama means you can photograph or film stuff that is owned or copyrighted by others as long as this is in public places and include it in your publication. That includes buildings. If that is allowed or not is different in different jurisdiction (and may change over time as the example of the european union shows). Such consideration alone can make it nearly impossible to shoot footage in a city.

If you shoot it on non-public places Freedom of Panorama doesn't work, that can even hit you in surprising ways. For example, I live in Potsdam. We a historic park, Sanssouci Park. That park can everyone go to, but it is not officially public, as it is owned and attended by a foundation. That foundation made news, as it sued different photographers for taking pictures in the park and selling the photographs. Many aren't aware that the freedom of panorama isn't working in the park, as the photos in the Wikipedia demonstrate.

Even if you try to get consent from the owners, it will be more difficult for open source movies. Because it includes that everyone can redistribute or alter the images. Many that might be OK with a one-time publication might have reservations against the open source rules.

But there is another problematic part. Think, you make an interview with someone and include it in your documentary. If that is open source, the license allows everyone to change it. That means, malicious people could synchronize other texts to the persons sayings and therefore completely alter what he/she said. That usually is prevented by Personality rights. Again, these laws can be very different in different jurisdictions. But usually you cannot alter footage to denigrate someone on these footage. As you basically cannot prevent this, you should add a disclaimer, saying that some changes that might be allowed by open source might still be illegal and declare that you have no influence onto other alterations of your work.

To address what Philipp said in his comment on the question, I would add that this is a smaller problem. Sure, everyone can change your documentary and the result isn't telling the truth anymore. That is right, but at the same time the derivate isn't exactly your documentary anymore, and we should be accustomed to the fact, that others don't always tell the/our truth.

In the end, the safest way to make an open source documentation might be shooting animals in the wilderness.

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