“I worked as a music teacher for a private school in New York in 1989. In June of that year, the school put on an operetta and it was videotaped. I would now like to use some video clips and put them on my music educator website for the purposes of my own promotion as a teacher.
The youngest children were six years old in 1989 which makes them 22 in 2006. I would think that by now any statute of limitations would have expired and these images would no longer be protected, but I want to check with a legal authority so I am writing to you. Are they now unprotected and free for my use or would I have to obtain consent from the children-turned-adults?”
The problem is multi-layered. First, there’s no statute of limitations on personal publicity rights, so even 100 years later, the estate of a long dead performer could potentially sue you for showing a recording of their performance without permission.
Second, the authors and/or rights holders of operetta’s content (story content, dialogue, music, and lyrics) can all be owned/held by multiple entities, all of whom might have a say in how any kind of public performance and recordings thereof are used. So the content could potentially be restricted from ever being displayed publicly, even if you had the permission of the performers.
Third, were there any restrictions in your contract with the private school regarding your use of recordings made while an employee of theirs? Many private schools (especially colleges) will often assert ownership rights of anything created during courses, made using school facilities, etc. For example, a number of very popular pieces of Internet software, including some of the first web browsers and computer operating systems, are owned by the universities where their students first created them as class projects.
Trying to be “legal” about it could take years of lawyering to unwind all the rights, permissions, and other restrictions. Now you know why lawyers outnumber performers in Hollywood by about 2 to 1.
The reality is that you could probably show brief clips without actually getting into trouble. You can also take it down if immediately after receiving a complaint and you’d probably not suffer any major legal repercussions.
Or, to steal a copyrighted line from Dirty Harry: “You’ve got to ask yourself a question: Do I feel lucky?”