Credit and Credits

There’s a great story making the rounds right now about how a Creative Commons-licensed photo of a NASA building made its way into Iron Man. The movie studio found the photo on Flickr and reached out to the photographer. Once he said “yes,” they photoshopped Robert Downey and Jeff Bridges into the image and used it prominently in the movie.

There’s something curious about the story, though:

“Ah, right!”, I said. I then launched into my usual spiel about Creative Commons licencing. I explained that she was free to use my picture. All she had to do was include a credit somewhere in her little movie.

“Well”, she said, “the thing is, getting your name in the credits usually costs at least $1,500. That’s why we need you sign the license release form I sent.”

Main title credits are heavily regulated by union contract rules, but I was unaware that closing credits were this restricted. And why $1500? Is it a contractual issue? A technical one? This whole part of the story is baffling.

I didn’t have a good answer when Chase emailed me to ask about it. I asked around on the email list for intellectual property law professors, and none of them had a good answer, either. Does anyone out there in blogland have any idea what was going on?

UPDATE 2008-12-06:

A number of professors with connections to the movie industry have written into say that they’re unaware of any union rules that would call for $1500 payments or of any other specific line items related to credits of this sort.

One old Hollywood hand ran some back-of-the-envelope math to suggest that the physical cost of producing all of the necessary film prints might actually go up by $1000 or so if adding a credit added a second to the running time. (That would be a sloooow credits crawl, though.)

Another speculation was that the studio might have needed to re-edit the closing credits had the photographer insisted on a credit. That sounds plausible, except that presumably the cost of re-editing the movie had he refused to back down would have been even greater.

Yet another common theme was the idea that there may have been some policy to limit the number of credits—e.g. an agreement among the producers not to hand out too many courtesy credits each—and that this policy filters its way down the chain of command as a “$1500 per credit” rule of thumb. That sounds possible, if not terribly satisfying. I continue to investigate.

If you are really curious, I suggest that you contact “Ashley,” the woman who said this to him—he links to her website in his post. Why not go straight to the source? (I say this as the daughter of a journalist—it’s amazing how much people are willing to tell you if you call and are nice and explain why you want to know.)