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Content Legislation

Laws governing film content - not just censorship but also copyright

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It was inevitable that as soon as legislation was introduced to cover the physical operation of cinemas, attempts would also be made to regulate the content of films. Indeed, this was how many local authorities interpreted the 1909 Cinematograph Act, which led to the film industry founding the British Board of Film Censors in 1912 as a defensive measure, with the result that content regulation was carried out largely through a series of informal agreements between the BBFC and local authorities.

It wasn't until 1937 that legislation was passed regulating film content on a national basis when the Cinematograph Films (Animals) Act was introduced, banning the depiction of unsimulated animal cruelty in cinema films. Similar legislation includes the 1959 Obscene Publications Act (extended to cover films in 1977), the 1978 Protection of Children Act and the 1994 Criminal Justice Act, all of which cover specific areas such as obscenity, indecent images of children and certain types of criminal activity.

The most far-reaching content-related legislation in Britain was passed in 1984, when the Video Recordings Act was introduced as a result of tabloid-fuelled panic over the easy and apparently legal availability of uncensored videos containing extreme violent and sexual material. The Act required all video recordings commercially available in Britain to be formally approved by the BBFC, which massively expanded its operations as a result.

Content regulation is not always censorship-related. Various Copyright Acts passed in 1911, 1957 and 1988 contained provisions relating to film. The 1911 Act protected films by including them as dramatic works, photographs and sound recordings (with the copyright potentially owned by three different people). The 1957 and 1988 Acts established the copyright period of a film as being fifty years from the date of its registration, which was redefined in 1995 by European Union Directive 93/98 to the date of death of the last significant creative contributor plus seventy years.

Michael Brooke

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