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A completed film is a product that the producer owns and can do with what they want. Problems arise when they are not educated as to what types of rights they have over their material or what they can do to protect themselves. A clear understanding of ownership rights is one of the most important types of insurance a filmmaker can have.
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You Own It
If the project was self-financed and produced then the rights to every element of the film, and all the markets in which it could be sold, are yours completely. These should be maintained at all times until you are ready to have the film distributed. If you are self-distributing the film then again, the rights remain yours. It is important to include the fact that “all rights are reserved” on all copies of the film, and in any contract that you write up that anything to do with the film still has the rights maintained by you.
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Preparing for Distribution
When you are ready to commercially distribute your film you will need to essentially sell these rights to the distributor. The likelihood is that since the distributor is going to have to sink even more money into your digital video film they are going to explain the ownership rights that you are transferring very clearly. The main one of these is for the right to distribute the film to domestic and international markets, both theatrical and non-theatrical. Non-theatrical markets would include things like DVD, television, and Internet rights. They may also ask for you to transfer over the ancillary rights, which means the rights to make other media products using your film as source material. This could be things like other films, television programs, or mini-series. You should attempt to hold onto these rights whenever possible as to not undermine the integrity of your original work. Merchandising rights will also be asked for, and you should make sure to be aware of exactly the merchandising plans before signing them away. They could include anything from toys to fast food tie ins, so you need to express your preference and moral stance before allowing them to use your video to sell other products.
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It is important to try and officially copyright your work at the United States Copyright office, and always consult a lawyer before making large decisions related to the transferring of ownership rights. Keep in mind that this is your work, and all the benefits from it should come to you.