Under the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 (an extension of the Copyright Act of 1976), artworks generally enter the public domain 70 years after an artist’s death. Until that time, artists or their estates retain the rights to the display and use of their work, and must clear any appearance in a film (artists generally retain their rights even if a specific work is actually owned by someone else).
Even when an artist’s work is slated to enter the public domain, an artist’s estate, a museum, a photographer, or another entity may retain rights to the images, making the clearance-getting process murky and tiresome. This makes it difficult to use works by modern masters such as Rothko (who died in 1970), for example.
The clearance process is so arduous, in fact, that productions usually have a person devoted to the job: a clearance coordinator. Some projects even require an entire legal department. Clearance coordinators are responsible for obtaining legal permission to use a range of components—from book titles to street addresses, billboard designs, names, and artwork.
When getting clearance for artwork to appear on screen, the coordinator often requests permission from multiple entities, such as an artist’s estate and a museum. Given the tangled nature of copyright and the potential for copyright infringement lawsuits, “you have to cover your bases across the board,” says Rose Lagacé, a Toronto-based production designer who has worked on the television series Covert Affairs and films on Netflix and Bravo.