Research Blog Series: Open Content Film making

Robin Williams reviews a University of Edinburgh project on Creative Commons and film making, for the Research Blog Series


Project Name: Open Film: Open Source

Investigators: PIs: Gian Marco Campagnolo and Robin Williams (University of Edinburgh). Research team: Evi Giannatou and James Stewart (University of Edinburgh) and Michael Franklin (Goldsmiths College, University of London).

What did your research aim to do?
The Open Film: Open Source study sought to resolve a controversy about the adoption of Creative Common (CC) licences in the film industry and its potential to establish open-content-film making (OCF) in a similar way to the success of Free/Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS).

How did you do it?
We sought to exploit the detailed insights available from contemporary ethnographic study-informed by the lived experience and attitudes of the actors and extend this longitudinally to gain insights into changing licensing practices with the uptake of CC within filmmaking. The first phase of the study examined how CC exponents and independent film-makers came together to explore the prospects for OCF. The second phase of the later research took as its central focus the practices of independent film-making and explored the extent to which CC was taken up. The central empirical resource comprises detailed ethnographic interviews with 31 filmmakers and others directly involved in open filmmaking across a wide array of independent film projects. This was supported by analysis of various documentary (online resources) and participatory materials; notes from open film festivals, remix cinema workshops and open culture groups’ meetings and conferences.

What are your key findings?
Our initial study documented attempts of independent film-makers and CC exponents to build an open-film movement. The FLOSS model, that had proved viable both for individuals and firms involved in producing/using Open Source Software, could not simply be ported cross to open cultural production. Open-content filmmakers (individuals and firms) struggled to make sense of the different kinds of licensing options. Crucially they did not succeed in establishing viable livelihoods with CC/OCF.

Our second, later, study, which took as its central focus the practices of independent film-makers, highlighted the ways in which they had appropriated particular CC features in managing and controlling Intellectual Property in their work. For example, allowing free distribution of film trailers to build audiences. Our study documented the multiple, ‘improvised’ and sometimes ‘messy’ strategies through which independent filmmakers had appropriated particular element of CC features in creating, monetising and distributing open films. In this way CC had become mainstreamed. Elements of CC became woven-in as an integral part of a wider set of changes accompanying the progressive digitisation of the independent film industry. These included collaborative production (particularly in relation to documentaries), collaboration with established intermediaries in the film industry and establishing evidence of demand through digital social media distribution of initial outputs in which CC was used to reserve commercial rights and forbid derivative works thereby assisting traditional funding and the growth of crowdfunding.

Our longitudinal approach drew attention to the complex and protracted social learning process through which film-makers tested and established the contribution of CC to their practices – though trial and error sense-making and learning by doing processes (Sørensen 1996). The insights achieved through examining the different understandings available through studying at different times and from different viewpoints (of the OCF movement and later of the independent film industry) highlighted the benefits of longitudinal and multi-site investigation of the evolution of these complex developments and the utility of our methodology informed by our Biography of Artefacts and Practices perspective.

What impact has your work had so far/what impact do you anticipate it will have?
Our work highlights the need for more detailed understanding of open innovation. The analysis demonstrates the shortcomings of deterministic projections of the ‘impacts’ on film-making etc. of particular technologies (digitisation or CC as a set of tools for managing IP). It thereby criticises naïve predictions of the growth of open innovation across the board that fail to explore the specific circumstances under which openness succeeds. Our work highlights the steep social learning curve as filmmakers seeking to adopt CC licenses became engaged in a combined act of discovery and tinkering, through which a range of hybrid practices emerged that met the requirements of participants involved.

One specific practical finding was that existing training for the film industry does not adequately prepare for dealing with the complex choices that have been opened up by CC in relation to licensing practices. This needs to be added to the training syllabus.

Are there additional/new research questions still to be answered in this area?
This work has provided important insights into the complex array of changes that have accompanied the digitisation and subsequent ‘data-fication’ of the production, distribution and consumption of film. However, the rapid state of flux continues unabated in the sector and is in urgent need of further study.

Two papers are under review for publication in refereed journals: Revolution Postponed? Tracing the Development and Limitations of Open Content FilmmakingRevolution Remixed? The emergence of Open Content Filmmaking as a viable component within the mainstream film industry

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