When a creative material’s copyright lapses, it enters the public domain, which means it is no longer subject to trademarks, patents, or intellectual property rights. No individual, company, author, or artist owns it, and it belongs to the public. If this is the case, why is some public domain footage so expensive? This is the question at the core of Richard Misek’s short film “A History of the World According to Getting Images” in which he explores how historically significant footage from newsreels, government agencies, and pioneers of film are “held captive” behind paywalls.
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Beyond the history contained within the images, Misek examines footage itself and what happens after it’s captured. He focuses on Getty Images, the world’s largest commercial archive, challenging its control over public footage, which it only makes available through steep licensing fees. In the case of The Miles Brothers’ iconic short film “A Trip Down Market Street,” which captures downtown San Francisco just days before the devastating 1906 earthquake, the film was digitized in 2016 by the Prelinger Archive and made available for free, while Getty charges hundreds or thousands of dollars for the rights to use the footage, depending on its intended use.
Misek parses the unequal power dynamics inherent within capturing life and major events, in addition to the barriers to accessing that footage today. “Newsreel cameras document power, but what strikes me most from my exploration of the Getty Archive, is how much the act of filming itself is an expression of power,” Misek narrates. He points out that footage shot by the government, like the first atomic explosions at Bikini Atoll in 1946, enters the public domain immediately, but that NASA is the only federal agency that releases directly to the public. Misek paid to us use six of the eight full clips in the film, which he sourced from various collections to find the best price.
Whenever I search a news archive, I always hope I’ll find some images that aren’t about power. And once in a while I do. But by and large, the past offers no surprises. As it is the source of all the inequalities and injustices that still exist. That’s why I made this film. Its aim is not only to share images’ stories, it’s to release them from captivity.
By paying to use the full clips, Misek slyly adds previously inaccessible images into the public realm by claiming no copyright, making the film available to stream online and download in full for free. You can find more of his work on Vimeo and his site.
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