How To Stay Out of Trouble

How to Stay Out of Trouble

Be nice

You can disagree with a story or the way your issues are portrayed, and you can say something about it publicly.  But consider that you might find more traction working with such storylines and not against them.

For example, tweeting at a TV show and its fans calling them “the worst” or using words like “for shame” doesn’t win friends or followers.  A better option might be engaging the fanbase and the show with sentiments like “Hey [show] fans – what did you think of portrayal of [character/issue]?  We think there’s more to the story.  Learn about myths and stereotypes [link to your site].”  Another idea might be actually thanking the show for bringing an issue to light but encouraging further exploration, such as “Hey [show], thanks for featuring [issue] in last night’s episode.  We have notes!  Learn more here: [link].”

Taking a positive approach increases the odds you’ll get retweeted by the show or film itself, and that can drive audience to you.

Ethical rules

As a nonprofit using entertainment in your outreach and communications, keep in mind that you are using others’ creative property.  Of course, films and shows are released into the world knowing (and hoping) that people will be commenting and posting about it, but that doesn’t give you the right to put words into their mouths.

For example, you can say “Hey [film], thanks for spotlighting [issue]!” or “[Character] fights for [issue] on this week’s episode of [show] and we love it!”  But you can’t put words in the mouths of actors or productions.  Don’t do this: “[Actor] supports [issue] and you should stand with her!” or “[Film] wants you to sign a petition on [issue] go to [link] today!”

Just because a character does something doesn’t mean the actual person playing that role believes in the same thing.  It’s always safer to stay with the characters’ names and the action that happens in the show.

Legal considerations

Films and shows are copyrighted material.  You can be sued for using it, particularly if you’re using it to raise money.  But producers also know that their work product often becomes part of the larger conversation.  Enter “fair use.”

Fair use 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.

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 an 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 commentary or criticism about an 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.

Full disclosure:  We aren’t lawyers (we don’t even play them on TV).   You should consult with legal counsel if you are faced with the issues here and are unsure about how to proceed.  We’ve taken our own lawyers’ advice and added 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.