October 21, 2017 Andrew Walker

Open Source Filmmaking

There’s more to open source filmmaking than meets the eye. In fact, the whole concept is a difficult one to turn into a practical working process. The concept of open source is easy to grasp and makes huge sense for software, by creating products that are “open” you grow a community of developers around it. It builds an ecosystem of helper apps, widgets and improves the interoperability of one piece of software with others which gives it better chance of success. It is a smart way of generating freemium sales, brand loyalty and, more broadly, producing better products. But for film, it’s a different ballgame.

Film isn’t a product like software, it’s made from different stuff and it’s consumed in a different context altogether. Actors aren’t code, they’re the physical manifestation of hard earned skills, blood, sweat and greasepaint. They also have a career that is defined by the product in a more organic sense than the technology in an open source product. Put simply, their ability to work is partly defined by the films they’ve worked on in the past. The way their performance is treated in moving images is critical to their future prospects in a highly competitive field. If an open source filmmaking project is flop, it could be bad for their career. If an open source software product flops it can be fixed. The lines of code get replaced, they don’t find it hard to land another job because of bad reviews or a long lost porn movie in the dim and distant past.

This isn’t just the nature of acting. Directors, crew, composers, writers, editors, they all face a similar dilemma. Up until recently, this problem has meant films were tightly controlled through legal mechanisms that prevented open source projects from being workable. Rights – copyright, distribution rights, merchandising rights and so on – all exist to prevent the crowd from using a work for their own purposes. But it hasn’t worked. Some of the best virals in recent years have been explicit breaches of traditional rights… and the numbers are huge. Check out how many virals this one clip from the film Downfall created – over 560 versions with over 29 million views – here.

These rights driven traditional control mechanisms were baked into the ecosystem of filmmaking and they (mostly) worked. They eliminated some of the risk of music or images being used in a way that might damage the career prospects of the people who contributed to creating the original source, before digital technologies became mass-consumer products. It couldn’t eliminate duff movies, but at least the people who created them got to limit how much damage a duff movie could do, in some respects.

So there is a problem for the open source movie. The people who make it, especially the actors, are understandably concerned that their image might be used without their consent in ways they aren’t entirely comfortable with. It’s the risk of career or reputational damage from misuse that’s the problem. It’s also more complex than that depending on the nature of the material you want to open source. For example, if you wish to release a soundtrack for remixing did the musicians agree to an open source use of their work when they were contracted to perform on the track? Again with the film crew. Did the editor commit to an open source use of his or her edits, or to a situation where they knew their edit might be one of many edits of the work that would finally be released?

That issue unfolds into more complexity. Where does their work become someone elses? If a clip that’s been acted, directed, edited and sound-scaped is chopped-up in a different way by someone as part of a new project, where does one creative output end and become something new? It’s akin to the issue musicians faced in the early days of sampling old tracks in new works, or in remixes, but multiplied out across the different disciplines involved. The actor might like the work but the editor might not. The composer might like the way his original score has been changed, but one of the musicians who played it might object.

It’s a Pandora’s Box of paradoxes. On the one hand, open source is supposed to create a common respect of rights and create genuine community ownership of a work, but achieving that result can easily mean one person from the dozens who created the original work losing their rights to control their own creative work. Can you be truly open source if you’ve removed people’s rights like that? Isn’t that the problem with signing away rights and losing control that is so often cited as the flaw with old school, restrictive rights and licensing mechanisms in the first place?

It might seem subtle, but these issues are a grey area for rights and barely explored in terms of actual practical examples of them working in film projects. And there is no easy fix. We have one practical measure, the excellent Creative Commons open source licensing initiative. But you can’t assume that solves all the practial issues, any more than traditional copyright solved the practical issue of file sharing (often called piracy – a term we don’t like because piracy is an horrific violent crime, not jacking a free copy of DVD). There’s no argument that issues that drove copyright breaches online were more complex than the legal frameworks could handle and so they failed to deal with it, and by the same token, there’s no argument that we haven’t got a widely understood formula for making open source film in the spirit of open source software or open data. Creative work is not data.

A Creative Commons license is a great start, but it only works if there’s a creative commons enabled contract that defined the work from the outset for everyone who worked on the film. When we started making STARVECROW in 2010, there was no broad definition of the mechanisms of creative commons like we have today. So our open source journey, like many in the space, needs working out as it goes along. We think we’ve solved it with a practical approach… watch this space as we blog about the practical process of taking the intelligence of open source thinking and make it work in the complex world of open source filmmaking.