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Excerpt exception

Actors should consider video clips online as a new market, not as a threat to their livelihoods.

May 23, 2008

For half a century, members of Hollywood's acting unions have enjoyed a degree of control unparalleled in the land of working stiffs. No excerpt from any of their works may be used without their explicit permission and payment of at least a day's wages. And every guild member in a scene wields veto power over its reuse. The only exception is for clips that promote new shows or films, such as movie trailers or previews of future broadcasts.

Now the major Hollywood studios are demanding a sweeping exception. They want to be able to use clips online or sell them to other Internet services without obtaining the actors' prior consent. The Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists have resisted the demand, arguing that their members need to be able to protect their images. "We've already delivered a strong message that performers will not relinquish consent for excerpts in New Media, which would compromise the integrity of members' work, their reputations, or their employability in scripted programming," AFTRA President Roberta Reardon wrote to members this week.

The reality of the situation, though, is that excerpts are already being used without actors' consent -- or remuneration. YouTube and other video sites are creating a market for scenes from movies and TV shows that can stand on their own, just as online music outlets have for individual tracks from CDs. The control once enjoyed by studios and other content owners is rapidly shifting to consumers, who are excerpting, compiling, redistributing and remixing videos without regard to contracts or copyrights.

That's why the guilds should focus as much on protecting income streams as images, because the latter is simply beyond their control in the Internet era. The best way to compete with unauthorized uses online is to offer a better legitimate experience. That doesn't mean giving carte blanche to any use of clips; clearly, actors should have a say over whether their performances can be morphed into product pitches or brand endorsements. But it does mean shifting from a self-protective crouch into a more market-oriented stance.

This won't be an easy issue to resolve, given the expectations guild members have built up over the years. On the other hand, the market for clips is brand new -- a two-minute scene had no outlet before broadband Internet connections became commonplace. The goal should be making that market a lucrative one rather than conceding it to outlets that don't pay.

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