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Copyright Issues Block Broadcast of Award-Winning Civil Rights Documentary “Eyes on the Prize”

StoryFebruary 08, 2005
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“This is analogous to stopping the circulation of all the books about Martin Luther King, stopping the circulation of all the books about Malcolm X,” said Lawrence Guyot, a prominent civil rights leader with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. “I would call upon everyone who has access to 'Eyes on the Prize' to openly violate any and all laws regarding its showing.” We talk to Guyot about a national grassroots effort to screen “Eyes on the Prize” today. [includes rush transcript]

In cities across the country today, people will gather for what is being called a nationwide screening of “Eyes on the Prize,” the famed documentary on the civil rights movement. The campaign is being organized by a music activist group called”Downhill Battle”: it is a response to copyright laws that have kept the series off of TV and out of print for a decade. The screening is called Eyes on the Screen.

“Eyes on the Prize” is made up of news footage, photographs, songs and lyrics from the Civil Rights Movement that are tangled up in a web of licensing restrictions. Many of these licenses had expired by 1995 and the film’s production company, Blackside, could not afford the exorbitant costs of renewing them. “Eyes on the Prize” has been unavailable to the public ever since.

The documentary’s owners are trying to get it back in circulation, but are facing some very restrictive laws. The 14-part film was last shown in 1992. The film won six Emmys, and the segment “Bridge to Freedom 1965” was nominated for an Academy Award for best feature documentary.

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.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We are joined in the Washington studio by Lawrence Guyot, a civil rights activist. We’re also joined on the line by Rick Prelinger, a professional archivist, who has been working to increase public access to online content. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!. Let’s begin with Lawrence Guyot in the studio in Washington. Talk about this movement and the significance of “Eyes on the Prize.” I don’t think most people realize you can no longer buy the series or watch it on television.

LAWRENCE GUYOT: Well, I just think it is the most important documentary that stands for the simple proposition on which this country was founded, that people — this is a visual, graphic empathic lesson that people can make policy that has national ramifications. One of the slogans of the period was “the hand that picked cotton picked Presidents.” Well, Jimmy Carter and Clinton were President because of the vote created by the Civil Rights Movement. There’s never been a documentary that has the impact that is as well researched and that has the national — the — I consider it a national and cultural icon. This fight should not be limited in the parameters of copyright law. We want Blackside to win this fight. What we’re doing in our — I believe that by showing the “Eyes on the Prize” and creating a greater market for it, we’re encouraging people to go out and buy, and we are encouraging people to send letters of support to Blackside. We want to move this to what it really is. This is about — if there was ever a time for people that are progressives in America to really fight for the right to re-establish our commitment to making policy by activism, now is the time. We have just lost a President, we just lost a Congress and Senate, we cannot afford not to use every weapon we have, especially one of the most important ones.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk, Lawrence Guyot, about what the problem is. Blackside is such an important production company. When “Eyes on the Prize” came out, it’s a true classic. What happened at that time?

LAWRENCE GUYOT: What happened at that time, they purchased the right — they paid royalties to some of the songs and footage for a certain period of time. Then there was a time to — Mr. Hampton died. Then there was a time to renew those agreements. It simply didn’t happen. Now, we have a need to ask — those royalties need to be paid. We’re not opposing any of that. My concern — so, where we are right now is we want to get as many people involved in the country in preserving this by accelerating it. I think that the Ford Foundation has given Blackside money to find out what is the actual cost, so, I don’t want to — this is not — this is America, so eventually, it gets around to the money, but I believe that there’s an issue that’s more important than the money, and that is why should we delay one second settling this and moving it — putting it back into public access, and — with — and understand me, again, we support Blackside doing that. We are not questioning their right to do it. We want to make sure that it is actually fungible and their ability to do it is a reality.

AMY GOODMAN: Rick Prelinger, you’re a professional archivist with You have been working to increase public access to online content. Can you talk about “Eyes on the Prize” in your domain?

RICK PRELINGER: Sure. “Eyes on the Prize” was a really, really important program. I remember when it was being made, and we helped the producers with the information about the civil rights material located in the obscure collections in the country, especially in the South. One of the issues, I think, that’s kind of coming to a head is the control of historical and cultural material by private organizations, and, you know, this is a — a capitalist system. To some extent, that’s going to be inevitable for a while, but on the other hand, it means that if you have possession of or if you own copyright to historical and cultural material, you can name your price. As a result, public access is really, really limited. You know, this is where, I think copyright isn’t just a — a consumer issue, but it’s also a real issue of freedom of expression, freedom of inquiry, freedom of access to history. What the Downhill Battle has done is kind of really provoking public debate in a way that I think is important, and means that copyright isn’t just about kids allegedly downloading music or people selling pirated DVDs on the street. It’s really about profound issues of our own access to our own history.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about how copyright works online, Rick?

RICK PRELINGER: It’s the same — you know, in the — in the physical world and in the online world with one major exception, that works that exist in digital form carry additional restrictions. And today we also have this really disturbing thing that’s developing, which is, you know, normally in the old days, traditionally copyright used to have a limited term. It would — somebody would take out a copyright for 28 years. If they chose to renew it, it would last another 28, and it would expire. This is not true anymore, because large corporations have gone to Washington, and, you know, lobbied to enact laws where copyright lasts much, much longer. And Congress seems to have the right to extend it indefinitely. As a result, we no longer have a public domain. We have an old public domain, but we don’t have a growing public domain. So, for example, if you are a baby boomer, a lot of the culture that reflects your history is in the public domain, if you happen to be a member of so-called Gen X or younger group you don’t have the freedom to go ahead and pull material out of your past and rework, analyze and understand it.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you, Lawrence Guyot, talk about what is happening today around the country?

LAWRENCE GUYOT: We’re calling upon people throughout America to sponsor showings of the film. It doesn’t matter what segment. There are 14 segments. We’re not saying please just show segment one. We’re asking people not to charge admission, but asking people to hold a discussion about this and communicate their interests in Blackside — in this film to Blackside. We don’t see anything that this — we want to make sure that there’s as much public exposure of this, as much public involvement and yes, we want to bring some noise to this. This is our film, we have never had a greater need for it. I went through the Civil Rights Movement. I know what it’s like. I know that the America we’re facing today is a retrogression of where we were then. This film is necessary. I don’t see why we would deprive young Americans of this — one of the most important educational pieces that flowed out of the civil rights movement. So, we are asking people, and it’s not too late to start planning it right now, pull together a showing. If you — if you don’t have any — all of the copies, call someone that you know. Use their copy, and let’s get this done, and let’s talk about it, and let’s keep the press open to this idea. Today is the beginning, it is certainly not the end, until we all have public access to “Eyes on the Prize.”

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk, for young people especially, who don’t even know what we’re talking about, “Eyes on the Prize.” You, Lawrence Guyot, are a key figure, a S.N.C.C. Organizer, in the Civil Rights Movement, can you talk about some of what “Eyes on the Prize” conveyed that we don’t get in other documentaries?

LAWRENCE GUYOT: “Eyes on the Prize” demonstrates that specifically in the state of Mississippi, that people who were told your name and address will be posted on the — in the newspaper when you register to vote, that you are not allowed to congregate in numbers of more than five, that every law that could possibly be designed to stop them from organizing, and yet this is the group — this is the state that pulled off the Summer Project. This is the state that pulled off the creation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. This is the state — all of this involved young people. People who were young enough to understand that they had the power, and the ability to change the country. And quite frankly, if you look at the civil rights changes, and understand the role that is documented by “Eyes on the Prize”, you get a different picture of this country. You get a picture that says yes, ordinary people can do astoundingly extraordinary things. It’s in “Eyes on the Prize” and there’s no reason it shouldn’t be out and available to the public now. I know of no better educational documentary that demonstrates that ordinary people can really do some astoundingly extraordinary things. It makes very clearly, young people were actively involved and are part of — they were not spectators. They were activists. And the question we have to ask ourselves is, isn’t that the best way to get people interested in education? To get them involved in a national movement that has been documented that is graphic, and it’s time now to replicate that movement. The best way to do it is to begin with what happened, and now let’s make it happen again.

AMY GOODMAN: Lawrence Guyot, if people want to do this screening, how do they get access to “Eyes on the Prize?” I mean, you can go to any store. You can’t get it. At Amazon, you can see it on sale for something like $1,000. How would someone get access to the program?

LAWRENCE GUYOT: Quite few ways that you can get access. One, libraries have it. It’s accessible in libraries. Two, there are individuals who were involved in the Civil Rights Movement who have copies. I’m sure they would share them to accelerate and expand the number of showings. That’s about it. Other people have created access in other ways. Whatever way the film is available, please, let’s go out and do it. Tiffany can be reached at 508-963-1096. She’s coordinating these showings. Let’s make this happen, let’s go out and make it a reality.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m looking now at that shows something like 63 screens from Tucson, Arizona, to Davis, California, Los Angeles, U.C.L.A., Mountain View, California, a lot in California, San Francisco and Palo Alto and other places. Rick Prelinger, can you just talk about your — what you’re working on online, trying to increasingly make content available — free to all?

RICK PRELINGER: Yes. I work with the Internet archive which is a — an online collection of all kinds of material that is free to download, and in many cases free to work with. In fact, we host a Democracy Now! archive, I believe. We have our own Prelinger Archives Collection, which is 2,000 archival historical films which are available for free download. I’m not saying to look at or to stream, I’m saying to download and re-edit to make part of your very own material. There’s interesting material about the Civil Rights Movement in the United States and struggles of African Americans and working people that is available for free, unrestricted use. And what we’re trying to do is open up public access to the public domain and make sure that there’s a strong, robust, public domain for — for — essentially so — you know, these days people don’t just, you know, look at film or TV and they don’t just listen to music, they make their own. Today’s reader is a writer, and today’s viewer is also a filmmaker. You know, we look at authorship and access in really broad terms. We want to make it possible for people to do their own. So, people might want to check out and see what kinds of resources are available. I think they’ll be pleasantly surprised.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Rick Prelinger, I want to thank you very much for being with us. And if people want to go online, where do they go?


AMY GOODMAN: Lawrence Guyot, where should people go online to get more information?

LAWRENCE GUYOT: To If you — if anyone out there has — owns copies of “Eyes on the Prize,” let Tiffany know so that can facilitate. We need to move the showings from 63 to 600.

AMY GOODMAN: On that note —

LAWRENCE GUYOT: We need to — yes. Go ahead. I’m sorry.

AMY GOODMAN: People can get contact on our website at

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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Civil Rights Pioneer Gloria Richardson, 91, on How Women Were Silenced at 1963 March on Washington

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