When a mining company sent a cease and desist letter aimed at a critical documentary, the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) worked with the Electronic Frontier Foundation to help them respond. Hecla Mining Company claimed [PDF] that SEACC had infringed Hecla’s copyright by using short clips from a Hecla promotional video. We worked with SEACC to draft and send a letter [PDF] explaining that this was a classic fair use of Hecla’s material. In response, Hecla withdrew its demand. While this case resolved the right way, it shows that even elementary fair use sometimes requires the counsel of a lawyer.

Irreparable Harm” is a short film sponsored by SEACC. The movie is about Alaska’s Admiralty Island, a National Monument which has been inhabited by the Tlingit people for thousands of years. In addition to several hundred people living in the Tlingit village of Angoon, the huge island near Juneau is also home to an estimated 2,500 bald eagles, more than 1,000 bears, and one silver mine—Hecla’s Greens Creek Mine.

The documentary explores the mine’s relationship with its Tlingit neighbors, highlighting pollution levels in traditional Tlingit food sources. SEACC says contamination has increased since Greens Creek, the only mine operating within a U.S. National Monument, began production in 1989.

This year, “Irreparable Harm” is screening in cities around the country. The film has screened at several environmental-themed film festivals, including the Wild & Scenic Film Festival, which is shown around the country—which apparently didn’t sit too well with Hecla Mining Company. Instead of offering a substantive response to the film, Hecla hired big-city lawyers in an attempt to shut down the movie with a spurious copyright claim against the nine-person grassroots environmental organization from Juneau.

In a letter sent last month, Hecla claimed that SEACC’s use of footage from a company promotional video about Greens Creek violated the Copyright Act. Ignoring SEACC’s fair use rights, the letter goes on to demand that SEACC “cease any and all reproduction of Hecla’s copyrighted works, including but not limited to, any showings of the Irreparable Harm film.”

EFF responded to Hecla’s demands on behalf of SEACC. We pointed out what should have been obvious—that the use of short clips in a critical documentary is “a paradigmatic case of fair use.” SEACC used just 28 seconds of footage from Hecla’s promotional video, combining it with voice-over commentary on Hecla’s mining practices.

Hecla has since backed off, stating [PDF] that it has “decided not to take further action” at this time. We’re glad that we were able to help SEACC in this case. But filmmakers shouldn’t have to hire a lawyer to protect their fundamental right to free expression. Copyright is meant to spur the production of new works, but unfortunately, it’s all too easy to use it as a tool of censorship (in this case we might call it a Hecla’s Veto).

Don’t let the potential of a copyright threat squelch your speech. For those seeking guidance on future projects, the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers has a “best practices” guide to fair use, and is a veritable “silver mine” of information.

To schedule a viewing of SEACC’s film or find one near you, contact the organization directly at info@seacc.org.