Rules of the Road

Always consult your attorney.

Do rules give you comfort? Or does the thought of them they make you break out in hives? Whether you’re a goody two shoes or a rebel, we want to share what we call “rules of the road.” Some cover important legal and ethical stuff. And others fall in the category of what makes you a cool human being. Please check them all out.

To be clear, we’re not lawyers. We don’t even play them on TV. You should consult with a lawyer if you are faced with the issues we address below and are unsure about the legalities here.

But first, a little…

Common Sense

You can disagree with a story or the way your issue is portrayed. And you can say it. However, you might find you get more traction working with such storylines and not against them. Here’s an example of working against a storyline:

Hey [TV Show], why are you THE WORST? SHAAMMMMEEEE!!!!

Not super interesting. You might feel this tactic is necessary, but it won’t win friends. We encourage you to try things more like:

Hey [TV Show] fans, what did you think about the portrayal of [Character X]? Learn more about stereotypes and myths here [Link]

Hey [TV Show], thanks for featuring [environmental issue X] in the conversation. We have notes! Learn fact vs fiction here! [Link]

By trying something akin to the above, you may even get retweeted or reposted by the show or film itself, and that can drive hundreds or thousands of users your way.

Ethical Rules

As a nonprofit using storylines in your outreach, you are playing with other people’s stuff. Granted, the folks who create TV shows and movies know that when they release them, they’re in the wild. People are commenting, talking and posting.

So when you start commenting, don’t put words into other people’s mouths. Remember, characters are played by real people, and films and TV shows are written by real people too. So it’s okay to say:

Hey [Film] thanks for spotlighting [issue]

[Character] fights for [issue] on this week’s episode of [TV show]

But it’s another thing to say – or make a graphic/picture/meme out of – the following, especially if you have no idea what the real person does or does not support.

[Actor] supports [issue], stand with her now.

[Film] wants you to sign a petition on [issue] – go to [link] today!

Remember, just because a character says something on a TV show or film, that doesn’t mean that the actor believes the same thing. You are on safer ground if you use the character’s name, in which case you are commenting on the plot. There are legal implications here as well, which we’ll get to now.

Legal Implications

Films and TV shows are copyrighted material. You could be sued for ANY use of this material, just like you could be sued because someone didn’t like your haircut, but, that’s not the way the world works. We need to talk about movies and TV shows, newspapers need to write about them, and scholars need to study them.

Enter fair use, which is a defense against a claim of copyright infringement. U.S. law includes exceptions that permit individuals and organizations to comment on, parody or criticize audiovisual works – within certain guidelines. Whether or not a particular use is fair depends upon a series of factors, it’s a balancing test and there is a lot of gray area. Those factors, as well as some resources, can be found here.

In practice this generally (but not exclusively) means that studios and networks won’t interfere in the fair use of small portions of their shows and films, IF you follow fair-use guidelines. In theory, it’s always a possibility that studios and networks could still sue or (more likely) send a cease-and-desist notice to intimidate folks into removing material that actually does fall under legitimate fair-use guidelines.

Generally, fair use permits the following:

  • Posting super-short clips from TV shows or films, as long as it is in the service of commentary or criticism about a social or environmental issue that takes place in that scene
  • Creating an animated GIF of a short scene (closed-caption dialogue of what the characters say is likely also permissible) – as long as the GIF is used for commentary or criticism about a social or environmental issue that takes place in that scene
  • Taking a screengrab or using a publicity photo of a film/TV show – as long as it is used for, you guessed it, commentary or criticism about a social or environmental issue that takes place in that scene/show/film


  • It’s not (technically) OK to use a screengrab, animated GIF, publicity photo or video from a film/TV show as mere decoration for a webpage, tweet, Facebook post, etc.
  • It’s also not OK to use a screengrab, animated GIF, publicity photo or video from a film/TV show as an endorsement on a particular issue. In other words, don’t take a publicity photo for a show and write “Stand with [TV show] to prevent [disease]” over it, if you haven’t received explicit permission to do so.
  • You can only use a small portion of the work to make your point, so you can’t post an entire film or TV show (or even extended clips) on your site and claim fair use. Think seconds, not minutes.
  • If you’re making money off the use of the material, or you’re interfering with the market for the material (e.g., by displaying so many portions of a DVD that no one would buy the DVD or by altering or distorting the original work), this would likely not fall under fair use.

It’s important to understand what you can and cannot do with other people’s media, but don’t let this scare you from dipping your toes into the water. Nothing can take the place of sound legal advice from a trusted lawyer, but here are some other helpful fair-use resources freely available online:

  • Columbia University’s Fair Use Checklist
  • The Center for Media and Social Impact has several great resources and best practices for fair use for documentary filmmakers, but they are broadly applicable. The FAQ and Examples sections are particularly helpful.

Look at us, modeling good behavior! We abided by our lawyers’ reminder to add this disclaimer of liability.

The content provided on our website is for informational purposes only. It may be incomplete or outdated and we are not responsible for any errors or omissions. The content on our website is not legal advice, nor is it a substitute for legal advice. You therefore should not rely or act on it. If you need legal assistance, you should consult with a qualified attorney for specific legal advice tailored to your situation.