Daiva Jurkonytė is a lawyer with 14 years of experience in working with audiovisual authors and the organizer of the “Filmo teisių lagaminas“ (“Film rights luggage”) conference; she also conducts training sessions for film professionals and students. In an interview initiated by the Vilnius Film Office, Daiva talks about the daily routine of her work, the most common legal conflicts, and how to avoid them.
Could you tell us what the work of an audiovisual lawyer is like? When do filmmakers need a lawyer?
Filmmakers may need legal services before starting their projects. In fact, they must consult with a legal advisor. In the process of filmmaking, the lawyer’s work takes place in two stages. The first one takes place before the shooting begins, when a lawyer joins in to put together the film’s legal suitcase, which contains various contracts. The second stage begins after the film is made, when stakeholders such as distributors, partners, and other creative people start sharing the film as a property unit. Another case, of course, is the conflict situation that may occur at any stage of film production or realization.
Why, as a lawyer, did you choose such a specific line of work—the field of audiovisual media?
I have always been interested in the creative world, the structure of relationships, and psychology. Life itself steered me in the right direction. At the beginning of my career, after 7 years in a law firm, bank, and real estate business, I was invited to work at an advertising production company Strictly Baltic. In this job, I did more than just help “with the papers”; I also had to do a lot of running around in the film sets, eventually getting to know other producers and various institutions. Responding to the market needs, I decided to study audiovisual law and the peculiarities of negotiations in Lithuania and abroad. I gathered significant experience, and started specializing in the field of audiovisual production. In recent years, my specialization has expanded: game developers, online content creators, as well as authors and developers of interactive digital products have also become my clients.
I have been working in this interesting niche field for 14 years. A few years ago, I tried to calculate how many films and other audiovisual projects I contributed to as a lawyer. I estimated that there were more than a hundred of them.
What is the most enjoyable part of your job?
I think it is important not to burden creative and artistic people with complicated texts but to explain to them what and why we put down in the contract and what the consequences of their actions might be. My favorite part of the job is putting some creativity into drafting contracts that are understandable and convenient. Nobody reads clumsy 18-page documents, and so they become a major cause of legal trouble. Therefore, I turn them into a 3-5 page document with a special and general part, enabling clients to edit and customize the basic details of the agreement.
What is important to know when working on film projects, and what skills does one need the most?
A lawyer must always question his opinion: am I really right? Have I weighed all the risks? Of course, when working in the field of cinema, it is important to know not only the law but also the processes that take place on the set; for example, to know the difference between the tasks of a director of a feature film and a documentary film, and other practical nuances.
In the practice of Lithuanian courts, one can come across the documents of the case when the client went to court because the director did not deliver the agreed product—a documentary film. The director explained that she could not do it because she was not given the script; there was a legal misunderstanding in court. In fact, everything is a bit simpler; in the case of a documentary film, the director does not receive any script because the director himself is the screenwriter.
What kind of conflicts do you deal with most often?
All sorts of situations occur. For example, a huge contract is signed and the project takes a long time—perhaps it’s a documentary or an animated film. The members of the shooting team are paid their salary regularly, but nobody has thought of asking them to present the results of every stage of the work completed, to transfer the intermediate results of the created material. Eventually, we have a situation where the salaries are paid for several years, but there is no tangible result.
The most difficult task is to solve the issue of broken cooperation relations when the contract is not signed or the existing contract is poor and does not meet the requirements of copyright legislation. Which brings me to an important point: the Copyright Law of the Republic of Lithuania requires all copyright issues to be resolved in writing. So if you don’t have a written contract, you don’t have copyright, even if you’ve paid for the creative services. Due to the lack of legal knowledge, situations arise when a person thinks he/she knows what is going to happen, signs a contract without reading it or not understanding it, and then it turns out that, from the legal point of view, the situation is different than one would like it to be.
I also work with licensing, obtaining rights to use other people’s work. A frequent problem is when something is purchased even though the seller does not actually possess it, i.e., a person grants or transfers rights that he has already sold to a music or book publishing company in a previous contract, or rights to a pirated work, i.e., an illegal copy. In such cases, the parties involved have to pay large sums to the actual owners of property rights.
Often, in cases of legal conflicts, the human factor of offended feelings comes up, making it difficult to find solutions, and without going to court, the one who has more resources “wins” and simply “does his own thing”. The authors condescend and do not defend their rights because they want to preserve their reputation and the possibility of being hired in the future in this small market.
Can all these situations be prevented?
I often say that the contract is the “brand book” of the future cooperation relationship, which describes what the accountability of the work will be, how to terminate the relationship, and discusses the necessary issues of property rights and practical implementation. Often, when concluding contracts, customers do not even think that something could be wrong; a lot is based on trust. However, various complicated situations do happen; this is life. Therefore, good contracts are the main means of preventing conflicts and lawsuits.
A good example would be the directors of Lithuanian audiovisual content, who form organizations, as well as representatives of other film production areas, who use lawyers and agents and draft documents establishing the minimum requirements for contracts concluded with film makers.
Is the legal practice in Lithuanian cinema significantly different from that in foreign countries?
It is culturally more important for foreign project managers to have properly organized documents and a chain of copyrights (i.e., contracts with all related creative persons). Almost all foreign actors and directors have their own agents. Therefore, in foreign projects, a lawyer is a necessity, not a luxury.
Thank you for the conversation.