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Getting Past the Legalese - Book Review

Success brings contracts, and contracts bring legalese. To get past the legalese painlessly, you need a good crib sheet and The Pocket Lawyer for Filmmakers gives you just that.

The Pocket Lawyer for Filmmakers: A Legal Toolkit for Independent Producers by Thomas A. Crowell is the most current go-to resource I could find for safeguarding your creative ideas and working your way through the maze of contract legalese. Directed at independent producers, it’s also a terrific book for anyone working in the film and animation industry who wants to know more about their contracts and the liabilities that go with them.

This newly revised version of the original 2007 edition has updates and expanded material, and new sections on tax credits, production incentives, productions services, and film distribution agreements. And there's now a companion website.

The key to this book is that rather than offering a series of ready-made contracts, the author teaches you the ins and outs of contract law as it’s applicable to the industry. That way, no matter what kind of contract you’re facing, you’ll have the tools to decipher it. 

The first chapter covers the basic concepts of copyright and intellectual property law in clear and simple language. The second chapter is aptly titled “Legal Building Blocks: Contract and Intellectual Property.“ The nuts and bolts of almost any situation you’ll face are laid out here.

I’m a big fan of appendices and that’s where I look first when I crack open a educational book because that’s where the perks can be found. Well, this book delivers appendices packed with quick references to common contract and intellectual property clauses. Have a question? You can find the answers quickly by going to the appendix. There you’ll find the reference pages for the material you’re looking for. How is this different from an index? One question leads to another so rather than facing hundreds of individually indexed words, the appendix gives you real questions that build on each other, quick definitions of common terminology, and crib sheet style explanations of legal concepts.

Almost everyone I know who works in the animation industry also has great ideas for films. The chapter on protecting your pitches and avoiding idea “theft” is essential if you decide to share anything with anyone.

Crowell outlines how to safeguard your creative material, how to set up a collaboration with a writing partner so everyone knows where they stand right from the start, how to structure a sale that covers your best interests... in other words the major deal points that you need to know to protect your contribution to the project.

If you decide to initiate pre-production or even production on your own, there’s material on outlining the goals, hiring a team, establishing who is responsible for what, options on compensation, and putting together the funding. There’s a important section on managing copyrights and trademarks on the set which is key information to protecting yourself against almost invisible potential problems.

Post-production brings its own set of contracts - with composers, stock footage companies, and the archives where you find clips. And finally distribution has its own set of legal challenges as you consider acquisition options, broadcast and festival screenings, theatrical and online distribution, and DVD sales. Everything is explained in easy to understand language. 

This is an extremely thorough book which covers exactly what it sets out to cover in a very uncomplicated way. The layout is clear and effective. The author has gone to great effort to make complex concepts very accessible and easy to understand and remember. The book has a companion website with case histories and examples that expand on the book’s material and together they go a long way toward providing you with a copyright and intellectual property education without the big bucks of law school tuition. The author is a practicing lawyer, but he’s also a terrific educator (law schools take note.)

A must read for any filmmaker who’s moving into production with a good idea that needs protecting.

This book with its companion online resources is a highly recommended package for the following areas of study: Animation, Creative Writing, Film, and Law at the high school, college, and university levels. And it’s a must buy for libraries that collect texts on these subjects.