The documentary “Eyes on the Prize” is lauded as the quintessential work on the civil rights movement, but don’t expect to buy a new copy or watch it on PBS any time soon. Legally, that is.
Copyright laws keep the 1987 film out of print. The documentary’s owners are trying to get it back in circulation, but must first untangle a nest of laws. In the meantime, the activist group Downhill Battle is organizing a nationwide screening Tuesday, and until recently had illegal copies of the film on its website.
“I learned my politics from this film; I can’t believe people don’t have the opportunity to see it and learn from it,” said Tiffiniy Cheng, one of the founders of Worcester, Mass.-based Downhill Battle. “This is a national treasure. It’s wrong that it is being kept from the public because of slow negotiations.”
A touching and intimate scene in the film shows staff members singing “Happy Birthday” to Martin Luther King Jr. on his 39th, and last, birthday. But copyright laws protect the song, as well as much of the television footage and photos used. Most of the rights purchased by filmmaker Henry Hampton have expired, and the film can’t be sold or shown on TV until licenses are renewed.
The 14-part film was last shown in 1992. It chronicles the movement, from Rosa Parks and the bus boycotts in the 1950s to the rise of black mayors in the 1980s. The first six hours aired in 1987, the final eight in 1990. The film won six Emmys, and the segment “Bridge to Freedom 1965" was nominated for an Academy Award for best feature documentary.
Hampton died at age 58 in 1998, and left his production company, Blackside Inc., to his sisters. Attorney Sandy Forman is working with Blackside to renew the copyright agreements and said that copyright owners have been cooperative, but legal wrangling takes time.
“I’m very optimistic,” Forman said. “There is enough of a clamor and interest, and it’s such an important project. It needs to be given an important status. I’m working on it.”
That’s not good enough for Cheng.
“We want this available now. We can’t wait any longer to bring it back into culture,” she said. “But we also wanted to bring to light how long negotiations are taking.”
Cheng and Downhill Battle, a year-old copyright-reform group with a staff of five, are organizing the screenings for Black History Month. So far, 35 showings are planned in homes, on school campuses, in libraries and in theaters across the country.
Blackside lawyer Tony Pierce said he appreciates the sentiment but added that Downhill Battle is violating copyrights owned by Blackside and by other organizations shown in the documentary.