BBC Films

Content Clearances

filmmaking guide

Content Clearances

Legal advice on getting the appropriate clearances for your film.

In order to be able to distribute and screen your film in public you'll need to ensure that everything is 'cleared'. This means that you have written permission to use everything that appears in your film. This includes script (see also our Legal Guide: Writing) brand names, logos and stock footage, images and music.

Make clearances as you go along, as soon as you can, rather than trying to get permission retrospectively after you've shot your film. You may find that you encounter unexpected problems getting clearances for things. If you can't obtain a release for anything, use a substitute instead.

Products, Logos & Brand Names

All products, logos, brand names and trademarks that are featured prominently in your film need to be cleared for use by the manufacturers or businesses concerned. It's often worth getting someone you know/your art department to create fictional brands instead to avoid the hassle. If you do use real products find out who to talk to at the manufacturers via the press office. Some of the clearances can be done in pre-production, (if you have an art department they should have an idea of which products they want to use), but there will always be new products that come up on a daily basis. If the product, logo, brand name or trademark is non-distinctive in the background, you most likely (but not definitely) do not need permission to film it. For instance, if you are filming an exterior street scene and the BMW car logo happens to be in a showroom behind the action and no reference is made to BMW as a company, then you are likely not to need their permission. As a general rule though, you should avoid filming or referring to any product, logo, brand name and trademark that shows a company or its product in a detrimental way. This is essential as many companies that own the rights or trademark in brands, logos and names will have the money to pursue infringement actions against you, and may follow a strict policy of taking action against infringers to protect their brand.

You may also wonder whether you can be sued for breach of copyright (as well as breach of trademark) for use of a name. This point has been discussed in several legal battles over the years. The general rule is that copyright does not exist in a name alone unless it is sufficiently original and distinctive. In a 1939 case, Francis, Day & Hunter who owned the rights in the song The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo sued 20th Century Fox for bringing a film out of the same name. It was held that this was not a breach of copyright – as the expression To Break the Bank was common and well known and the title not sufficiently original to hold copyright.

Filmmaker question:"I have used a brand logo in my film but have disguised it by calling the company a different name (a pun on their name). The design is otherwise identical though. Does this count as a breach of copyright?"

Answer: See our Legal Guide: Filmmaker FAQs section

Filmmaker question:"A character in a film is reading a novel by a famous author. Do I need to get clearances for this?"

Answer: See our Legal Guide: Filmmakers FAQs section

Filmmaker question:"I've used found footage in my film. Are there any clearance issues with this?"

Answer: See our Legal Guide: Filmmaker FAQs section

Clips, Stock Footage, Tapes & Images

If you want to use someone else's footage in your film, you'll need to obtain permission from the company that presently owns the film or video clip. Bear in mind that the material may have changed ownership since its original release. There is often a charge for such use.

To use an image you need permission from the copyright holder (usually the photographer/creator) and a release from the person(s) in the photograph if not previously granted to the photographer.

Many films include the use of stock footage. There are many organisations that provide film clips and photos that have already been cleared including:

Stock footage libraries in Kemps directory

The Image Bank by Getty Images

National Geographic


Please see for further details of organisations that provide archive footage.

Please be aware that even with royalty-free images you often still have to pay a one-off fee to use them.

See definitions of royalty-free and stock photography on Wikipedia for more information on this topic.

Filmmaker question:"One of the characters in my film is watching television. Is it ok to use real footage on the screen?"

Answer:See our Legal Guide: Filmmaker FAQs section

Filmmaker question:"I have a real talk show radio playing in the background of my film. Does this need clearing?"

Answer:See our Legal Guide: Filmmaker FAQs section

Font, Texts & Designs

Although it is not widely known, copyright exists in fonts, texts and designs. This means that you may be infringing copyright law if you feature a sign or map in your film, for example if you feature a clip of the London Underground Map in your film. You will have a defence to any action against you if you can prove that the use of the work was 'incidental' i.e. unintentionally included in the background. If the use of the work is not 'incidental' then you must seek clearance from the right holders in the design and/or font and text. It is possible to do a buyout of all media (including the text, font and design) from the right holders who will often be the same person, so that you can pay a flat licence fee for the use of all the rights in the work.

Famous Works & People

If you are choosing to focus on a famous painting in your film i.e. a painting by Picasso, then you will need to get clearance from the owner of the copyright (as Picasso works are still in copyright). There will be no infringement of copyright in an artistic work if it is included incidentally in a film. So paintings, drawings, and other artistic works can form part of the dressing of a film set without requiring a licence from the copyright owners, if the inclusion is 'incidental' background use. What is meant by 'incidental' has been long discussed by lawyers and in the courts. In a 2003 copyright case, the defendant in the case had published a sticker album showing pictures of football players wearing football strips showing club logos and the logo of the FA Premier League. This was not deemed to be 'incidental' inclusion of the logos because the logos were central and integral to the pictures of the football players.

If you are parodying a famous person for comedy then this is acceptable to a point as long as you are bringing your own interpretation e.g. the French & Saunders parody of The Lord of the Rings films (watch a clip on BBC Comedy). However, you must not reproduce a substantial part of the original source e.g. use substantive parts of the scripts of The Lord of the Rings films or the original books.

When a film quotes a famous line from another script i.e. "I'll be back" (The Terminator) but the line does not constitute a substantial part of the script from which it is taken, the use of the quote will not constitute a breach of copyright. Similarly, if characters are discussing a book, art or another film in your film, you will only be in breach of copyright if they are copying a substantial part of the original. There is no clear definition of what is meant by a 'substantial part'. This question was considered where a designer launched a fabric design called 'Marquante' in 1996 that was similar in impressionist style and brush stroke to the work of another designer. Even though the designs were not identical they were similar in style and approach – and this was deemed breach of copyright for copying of a 'substantial part' because the Marquante designer had used a substantial part of the original designer's skill and labour in coming up with the new design. So, in the case of a film it is likely to be breach of copyright if an actor is reciting sections of text or script from a book or other film – but a few words from the original work will not be seen as a breach.

Filmmaker question:"My film pays homage to Charlie Chaplin. The actor impersonates Charlie Chaplin but the film is set in the present time. Do I need clearances for this? If so, who would I get them from?"

Answer:See our Legal Guide: Filmmaker FAQs section

Filmmaker question:"My film starts with a written quote from a famous politician. My film shows the irony of that quotation. Does this count as defamation?"

Answer:See our Legal Guide: Filmmaker FAQs section

Script Clearances

Script-related content issues to watch out for are:

Defamation: any false accusation which may cause a person to be hated or despised. It only applies to someone who is identifiable. You cannot defame someone who is dead but you can accidentally defame someone – it is worth checking names of characters to ensure they are not names of real people. See the description of defamation on Wikipedia for further information.

You should be careful when portraying characters that are based on real people – even if you think you are not being direct or obvious about whom that person is or if you think you are not portraying them in a particularly bad light. The film Factory Girl (2006) (based on the life of Edie Sedgwick) sparked controversy by its portrayal of the character Billy Quinn who has an undeniable physical likeness to Bob Dylan in the film. In the film, Billy has an affair with Edie Sedgwick. Dylan was reported to have launched legal action against the filmmakers for the defamatory portrayal of himself, even though his actual name is not used in the film - read more about the story on BBC News. This illustrates the fact that individuals (especially famous ones) may be fiercely protective of their reputation and will launch legal action against filmmakers to protect this.

Blasphemy: is committed when material is published which outrages and insults Christian religious feeling. In relation to feature films, these issues will normally be caught by the British Board of Film Classification prior to release.

Obscenity: affects materials which "tend to deprave or corrupt". Only if a script is extremely specific and graphic could it in itself be treated as obscene material


True Stories: There is a serious decision to be made before a film is called a true story, if it is likely that a high degree of artistic license will be exercised on the piece. In such circumstances, it is perhaps best to refer to the film as “inspired by a true story” so as not to leave the film open to Defamation.

Public Domain: Material in the public domain is not subject to the rules of copyright. Material is in the public domain where copyright has expired or the type of material is not capable of being protected by copyright, for example factual news reports.

Other Resources

Film London Artists' Moving Image Network (FLAMIN) has produced a filmmaking guide called 'Making Work' with a section on legal issues. This section includes information on organisations that provide legal services and copyright and clearance issues. Making Work: Legal Issues

On the FourDocs (the broadband channel for short documentary from Channel 4) website, there is a helpful filmmaking section called Make Docs, which includes a legal guide. Although the information is targeted at documentary filmmakers, much of the advice is relevant to all short filmmakers. Four Docs: Make Docs

Related Guides

To check what rights and clearances you'll need to show your film in public, see our Legal Guide: Rights & Clearances Checklist

For information about script copyright, optioning, adaptation etc see our Legal Guide: Writing

For more detailed information about music clearances see our Legal Guide: Music Rights

See also our Related Links: Legal

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