Breaking news in court case on documentarian rights

Documentary filmmakers and journalists may breathe a partial sigh of relief today as the Court of Appeals has issued a largely positive order in the case of documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger. Attorney Michael C. Donaldson filed an Amicus Brief on behalf of the Writers Guild of America East, as well as 22 other industry organizations and individuals, who saw an earlier court order for Berlinger to turn over footage he filmed making CRUDE, The Real Price of Oil as a grave threat to the future of investigative documentaries. Donaldson evaluated yesterday’s ruling as “a partial victory for both sides. Chevron gets some but not all of what it wants. Berlinger has to turn over some, but not all 600 hours of footage.  The many hours of footage that Joe gathered alone with the plaintiffs and their families, friends, and neighbors has all been protected.  What is important to the documentary community is that – for the first time in this kind of case – the court is restricting Chevron on how it uses the footage.  Chevron can only use the footage for litigation, arbitration, or submission to official bodies.  Chevron can’t use the footage in publicity or promotional materials.  The documentary community is awaiting the final order of the court because it should give detailed discussion of the court’s thinking and provide guidelines to help documentary filmmakers in the future."“It is important to note that the many hours of footage that Joe gathered as he talked to the victims and their families does not have to be turned over pursuant to this order.   In terms of the trust and confidence that is at the heart of investigative filmmaking, this is a very important element of the order.”A lower court had ordered Berlinger to turn over 600 hours of raw footage he shot producing the documentary CRUDE, The Real Price of Oil to Chevron. Chevron went to court to gain access to the footage because it is defending itself against amassive Ecuadorian class action lawsuit brought by workers and residents of the Amazon who are seeking redress for years of environmental pollution.

The Independent Documentary Association explained that the earlier ruling to turn over the footage “will have a crippling effect on the work of investigative journalists everywhere, should it stand” because "If witnesses sense that their entire interviews will be scrutinized by attorneys and examined in courtrooms they will undoubtedly speak less freely.”

The Amicus Brief filed on behalf of the WGAE and 22 other industry organizations and individuals was considered invaluable by Berlinger’s legal team.