You may remember that this past spring, Downhill Battle released the seminal civil rights documentary, “Eyes on the Prize” in digital format and organized national screenings of the film during Black History month in a campaign called Eyes on the Screen”. VHS copies of “Eyes” have been hidden away on dusty shelves for the past 10 years because the process to clear all the copyrights for songs and clips in the documentary is labyrinthine and archaic, making it so that the owners of the film had a heck of a time trying to get “Eyes” out of copyright purgatory. Because “Eyes” was locked away, students were deprived of an extremely important tool for understanding the civil rights movement and the public had lost a very valuable reference point for discussing the civil rights movement.
The ‘Eyes” story involves 10 years of fighting for copyright licenses, a series of plight articles leading up to MLK Jr. Day 2005, organizing wisdom from civil rights leader, Lawrence Guyot, and momentum created by the Bay Area Vets’ involvement in pushing things forward. Over 200 screenings of the film were organized and attended and a double baker’s dozen of articles focused on the problem that “Eyes” was facing came through the “Screen” campaign. Recently, we heard of good news! This news comes in the form of a large donation from someone probably pretty awesome and a possible deal to rerelease the documentary both on DVD and on TV.
To bring back “Eyes” on DVD and TV, a sort of miracle happens:
“I called my friend Richard Gilder and I told him about the situation and he put up $250,000 on the spot,” Gates said. “He did it purely because he believes in the civil rights movement and African-American history.”
You can listen to what NPR has to say about the future of “Eyes” and a mention of our work here or read the Wired article on it here.
I’m excited about what is happening with “Eyes” and the fact that people cared to have screenings, talk about how a messed-up copyright system could affect our education system, and do the work to make “Eyes” a part of public discourse again. Of course, not every documentary will have a special historic and educational position, have articles written about it, or even have a public interest direct action campaign to call attention to it. But many documentaries will face copyright purgatory one way or another given the current system that we have now. Thanks to all the readers who were involved with this past spring’s big “Eyes” push.