Facing the music.

(Disclaimer: I am not a copyright lawyer – I don’t even play one on TV. This article is not meant to take the place of professional legal advice.)

Music. It’s a key creative ingredient in video biographies. Music can establish pacing, create moods and evoke historical eras. But there’s another aspect of music use video biographers need to heed: the legal side. Why?

Let’s look at a couple of hypothetical situations.

A. The storyteller you’ve just interviewed described herself as a devoted fan of Nat King Cole. Based on that, you decide to feature the song, “Unforgettable,” as the music track for the opening and closing of her video biography and to use other Nat King Cole songs as background music throughout the program. You buy a few CDs or download the songs you need, and set to work.

B. Your legacy video subject is a musician. He talks about how early Bebop influenced his musical style. You demonstrate the influence by playing a few bars from a Charlie Parker tune, then segue to your storyteller playing his own saxophone composition.

So, are these legal uses of copyrighted music? If not, what risks do you take by using it?

The answer to question one depends on how you interpret the fair use provisions in copyright law. Fair use allows you to use copyrighted material, without licensing it, in your documentaries and personal video biographies under certain conditions. Those conditions are outlined in a great guide, entitled “Documentary Filmmakers’ Statement of Best Practices in Fair Use.” A pdf download of the guide is available at the Web site of the Center for Social Media & Social Impact. The link to the best practices guide is on this page. I urge you to visit the site, download the guide and acquaint yourself with fair use.

According to the guide, there are two key questions courts consider in copyright cases:

1. Did the unlicensed use “transform” the material taken from the copyrighted work by using it for a different purpose than the original, or did it just repeat the work for the same intent and value as the original?

2. Was the amount and nature of material taken appropriate in light of the nature of the copyrighted work and of the use?

Judging by these two questions, I’d consider example A to be a blatant violation of copyright law. Importing a copyrighted piece of music into your video without licensing it and using it to underscore your video doesn’t transform the music at all. You’re simply just repeating it. Example B is probably another story. Here you’re using a short excerpt of copyrighted music in an appropriate way – to illustrate a point. Much different.

So what do you do if you really want to use copyrighted music in your next legacy video? The answer: You need to license it. That means going to a music publisher or a rights agency, telling them how you want to use the music and finding out what it’ll cost to get permission. Sounds simple, but it isn’t. Most music publishers aren’t interested in dealing with those of us creating videos for limited distribution. They don’t see profit in it. And if they do respond to your inquiry, you can very likely expect the cost to bust your budget. By the way, the kind of license you’ll need is a music synchronization license. Unlike the right to just listen to a song that you buy, a synchronization license gives you the right to synchronize that music with visuals in a film or video.

Other options? I can vouch for stock music. There are lots of companies offering music specifically designed for use in film and video. Depending on the company you choose, you may pay an annual licensing fee or a per use fee. Or, if you choose to buy royalty-free music, you’ll pay just once – to purchase the song – and then retain the rights to use it in any number of productions. The stock music library I license has a wide variety of music that gives me the creative options I need – and I never have to worry about rights, since the synchronization rights are included in the licensing agreement. Clean and neat – no muss and no fuss.

You may also choose to build your own music tracks by purchasing software that enables you to layer rhythm and melody samples. Or you might search craigslist (try “creative” under the “services” category) for a budding musician willing to let you use his/her tracks for free or low cost in return for acknowledgement in the video and perhaps a copy the musician can add to his/her portfolio.

So what do you risk when you use unlicensed music? The copyright holders can sue you, of course. But so far I haven’t read about many lawsuits directed at folks creating video biographies or wedding and event videos, even though some of them make extensive use of popular music. That’s not to say that someday publishers won’t wake up and realize that all our small companies taken together represent a potentially tidy profit for them. If and when that day comes, I don’t plan on being a test case in court.

Aside from protecting myself legally, the other reason I don’t use unlicensed music falls under the ethical/moral category. Folks who create music deserve to profit from their creations. I feel it would be wrong for me to generate income from the use of their work without reimbursing them. And since the current system makes such reimbursement difficult and expensive, I take an alternative route: stock music.

The bottom line for me when it comes to music: Unless it qualifies as fair use, I never use a cut I haven’t licensed or gotten permission to use. For me, doing otherwise would be illegal, unethical and unprofessional.

Video biography connections – a personal story.

Video biographies are all about making and reaffirming connections – between the past, present and future and with the family, friends and sometimes complete strangers who help us on our journeys through preproduction, production and post production. Here’s a case in point.

Ever hear the story about the shoemaker’s kids? Their dad was always so busy mending shoes for customers that he neglected his own children, who went around with ever-growing holes in the soles of their own shoes, and maybe even barefoot.

Now, my business is custom legacy videos, not footwear. But the old cobbler and I share a common dilemma: How to shoehorn family projects into a schedule dominated by “paying” work. Well, this year I went the shoemaker one better and finished a family project I started three years ago: my mom’s video biography.

The three years since her November 2006 interview just flew by – and I resolved at the dawn of this year not to let a fourth slip past. So this summer I started devoting free hours to the project. My initial goal was to have the video finished in time for Christmas. Then Halina and I invited Mom to visit us for Thanksgiving, giving me an incentive to finish earlier so we could premiere the video during her stay.

Having that deadline did the trick. I felt a great sense of accomplishment (and relief!) as we screened the video in our Tucson living room, as well as the joy that came from sharing the video with family and friends as my Christmas gift this year.
So where do connections enter into the picture?

To start with, the video gave me an opportunity to reconnect with my mom’s cousin, who lives in Guatemala. I haven’t seen or spoken with her since I was a youngster, but since a portion of my mom’s remembrances touched on her husband (my grandfather’s brother) I thought she might enjoy a copy of the video. I asked Mom for her cousin’s address, packed up the DVD and shipped it off to South America, all the while keeping fingers crossed that it reached the intended destination. What a surprise I had when, a few weeks later, I opened my inbox to find an e-mail with the subject heading, “Hello from Guatemala!” My mom’s cousin was overjoyed by the video and had already shared it with many members of her family. She called the video “a travel through time” and invited me and Halina to visit when we could.

I made new connections and resurrected old ones throughout the process. From the antiques vendor who sent me photos of many of the makeup compacts and lipstick cases produced by a company my grandmother once worked for, to the friendly real estate agent in New Jersey who provided pictures of the retirement community where my mom’s parents lived for a time, to an old friend of my mom’s who e-mailed me some images from their days as Army wives in North Carolina – and to a former next-door neighbor I tracked down who fished out an old snapshot that showed what my boyhood home looked like just before my parents bought it in 1959.

In a larger sense, this personal project left me feeling more connected to my passion for video biography than ever before. It’s a passion I know will continue to drive me to help others to preserve, share and celebrate their life stories on video.

A "Miracle on 34th Street" in Tucson

Last week I finally saw “Miracle on 34th Street” on the big screen. Not that weak color remake, mind you. I’m talking about the original, in glorious black and white. After all these years of watching the film on TV with “minimal commercial interruptions” I saw the film as it was enjoyed by audiences during its initial release in 1947.

Many thanks to the Fox Theatre, here in Tucson, Arizona, for including “Miracle on 34th Street” in its holiday film series. The Fox, by the way, is a classic Art Deco movie house, recently restored to its original glory; it’s the perfect venue for classic films like “Miracle.” If you’re ever in Tucson, be sure to check out the Fox – it hosts live performances as well.

Learn "Video Biography Basics" in January 2010

Get ready to dust off your headsets and double check your Internet connection – Family Legacy Video’s next Webinar series is on the calendar!

Family Legacy Video is proud to present “Video Biography Basics,” a six-session Webinar series led by award-winning video biographer and Family Legacy Video president Steve Pender. If you’ve been wondering what it takes to create a legacy video, this series will answer your questions and give you practical and professional tips and techniques you can apply to your own do-it-yourself video biography project. The sessions are designed for beginners and advanced beginners.

Choose from morning or evening sessions. The dates: January 19, 26; February 2, 9, 16, 23. Individual sessions cost $40; sign up for the series and save 10%.

For more information and to register visit Family Legacy Video’s Workshops & Webinars page.

Introducing a new twist on gift certificates

Remember the last time you gave someone a really great gift – and how much fun you had anticipating the reaction your present would generate – and how great it was sharing in the recipient’s surprise and joy?

The gift of a video biography from Family Legacy Video certainly falls into the category of unique and special gifts, but it poses a challenge: Since the legacy video is most often created after you announce the gift, what can you give your storyteller that will surprise and delight him or her and generate excitement about your special present?

Family Legacy Video’s answer is a new twist on gift certificates. We call it the DVDficate™. It’s a personalized video on DVD that’s a really fun way to announce your legacy video gift.

Sorry, we no longer offer the DVDficate™. We can, however, provide a printed gift certificate – or send you a PDF file you can print yourself.

Video Biography: A Dream Career

Dreams are funny things. Most disappear from my memory in an instant, like flash paper kissed by a burning match, as soon as I open my eyes to the light of day. Others, for no particular reasons I can fathom, remain inked indelibly onto my long-term memory. I like to re-examine these dreams occasionally to see if time and life experience bring additional insights into their meanings. Once in a while I get lucky:

This is one of those dreams where I’m both a participant and an observer. It’s spring or summer. I see myself playing in the backyard of my boyhood New Jersey home with one of my brothers. I’m about eight years old; Bob is around two. Suddenly, it’s time for me to leave. I stand, and in an instant I’m walking by myself, way in the distance. Bob immediately notices that he’s alone and he begins to cry. Even though I’m miles away, I hear his distress. I turn, and in a moment I’m back with my brother. I take his hand in mine. Then, in another instant, we’re walking together, far, far away.

This is the oldest of my “inked-in” dreams, staying with me since I was eight years old. It’s always resonated with me in a very strong and visceral way. I could never put my finger on just what gives this dream its staying power. But looking back on it nearly forty-five years later, I think its imagery sheds some light on why I became a personal historian.

On a basic level, the narrative is about me leaving my brother behind, then realizing my mistake and taking him with me on my journey. But when I approach it a little more creatively, I see that the two figures can also represent generations of a family, one older and one younger. We often get separated – sometimes by distance, sometimes by time, many times by both. How can we bridge these gulfs and stay connected? In the dream my brother and I link hands. From my current perspective as a video biographer and personal historian I help generations create links by sharing stories.

Preserving, sharing and celebrating personal and family stories is the greatest way of fostering and maintaining connections between generations that I know. When you commit your story to video or audio or print, you’re reaching out to your family’s younger generations and generations yet to come. You’re saying, “Hi. We’re family and we’re connected. I’d like to introduce myself and pass my experiences, observations and insights along to you. This is my gift to you and I hope you enjoy and profit by what I have to say. And please, pass my life story and yours along to the next generations of our family.”

Speaking from my own experience, hearing stories about my grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts and uncles made me appreciate them and feel connected to them as flesh-and-blood people, instead of flat and faded images in a photo album. And thanks to today’s video technology, I can help folks capture their stories as never before, creating legacy videos that will allow future generations to see and hear ancestors speaking directly to them.

Generations “holding hands” and staying connected through the power of story – that’s what this dream now means to me. And if dreams are signposts, I’d say this one had me pointed towards a career as a personal historian long ago.

A pilgrimage to a very special eatery


Pizza, spaghetti with marinara sauce, lasagna, eggplant parmigiana – all standard items you’d expect to find on most Italian restaurant menus. But at Spirito’s, a neighborhood eatery in Elizabeth, New Jersey, these dishes are part of an on-going, inter-generational feast.

Spirito’s opened in 1932. Seventy-seven years later, the business is still run by the Spirito family, and descendants of the original customers continue to patronize the place. The restaurant occupies a nondescript stone building on the corner of 3rd Avenue and High Street, a neighborhood of busy, narrow streets and not nearly enough parking. The bar’s in front; dining room is in back. It’s a no-frills kind of place, clean enough and featuring wood paneling and green-painted booths. Hanging on the walls, framed photos and newspaper reviews and articles celebrate the histories of the Spirito family and the restaurant.

My maternal grandparents introduced me to Spirito’s when I was a youngster. We always started with a cold antipasto, featuring celery, peppers, olives, cheeses and meats. Next came the “pizza pie” (as Grandpa always called it), a cheese pie with lots of tomato sauce and a very thin, crispy crust (what Garden Staters call a “bar pie”). The main courses followed. I can still remember the ravioli – large plump pasta pillows with a feather-light and creamy cheese filling. And the eggplant – wow, my mouth is watering as I write this.

The restaurant does have it quirks. Plenty of bread, but no butter. Soda is served by the pitcher, but you can only buy beer by the bottle. No coffee. And if you want desert you can stroll on down to the Italian ice stand at the other end of the street. But hey, these are the things that give Spirito’s its charm – like the wait staff.

The waitresses were, and still are, fantastic. I’ve heard them described as gruff – but to me they’re pure “Jersey” – friendly, no-nonsense ladies who also happen to have great memories. They never write down an order and they never make a mistake. In fact, years after my grandfather and grandmother moved from Elizabeth and my grandfather had died, I remember going to Spirito’s with my grandmother and finding a waitress who remembered them both.

Memories, I think, even more than the food, are what make this place so special. On a recent trip to New Jersey, I returned to Spirito’s for the first time in two decades and enjoyed a meal with my mom, two of my brothers, my sister-in-law, two nieces and a nephew. Nothing about the place had changed – and that was a good thing. I was happy to see a new generation of our family enjoying the same dishes I savored as a kid. And as I worked my way through the antipasto, the “pizza pie” and my eggplant, the tastes brought with them memories of happy times with my mom, grandparents and brothers around these very same tables. We were all part of a wonderful continuity – a very tasty legacy, if you will.

As we got up to leave, I told my mom that, while we had three generations gathered around our table, I’d felt as if my Grandma and Grandpa had joined us as well. Mom nodded and smiled. She’d felt their presence, too.

A legacy of tulips

Did you ever play Wiffle Ball? Growing up, it was the summer pastime of choice in my suburban New Jersey neighborhood. Every day, kids would congregate on the side street by my house, choose sides and have at it. Games were noisy affairs, punctuated by lots of arguments over close calls, and could last for hours. It wasn’t unusual for us to suspend a game for dinner and then reconvene afterwards. In fact, I remember finishing one game under the glare of a neighbor’s headlights.

It was a pretty safe game, too, thanks to the hollow plastic Wiffle Ball. It would glance harmlessly off just about anything it hit.

The exception was Mr. Daly’s tulips.

Mr. and Mrs. Daly lived on the other side of the street. They were a very pleasant, elderly couple and they tolerated us kids pretty well. Unfortunately, Mr. Daly insisted on planting tulips outside the chain link fence bordering his backyard. He was quite proud of those tulips and the bright red and yellow blooms they provided each spring – and he became quite upset whenever a sharply hit foul ball lopped the top off one of them. Or two. Or three. Not that we wanted to damage the flowers; they were just innocent bystanders that occasionally got caught in our Wiffle Ball crossfire.

The 1960s, as well as Mr. and Mrs. Daly, are long gone. But a recent experience brought all those memories back to me. In early July, my wife Halina and I traveled back to New Jersey to visit family. One day, we drove through my old neighborhood. I couldn’t resist stopping to look at my old house, now vastly enlarged from the little bungalow in which I grew up. I walked around the house and took a few pictures – and it wasn’t long before I caught the attention of one of the neighbors, who probably figured I was casing the place for a robbery.

He strolled over, a glass of beer in hand, and asked if I needed some help. I introduced myself and told him I grew up in the neighborhood. We started chatting, and soon I found myself in the middle of a small crowd of neighbors, answering questions about what things were like in the old days, and who used to live where. During the course of our chat, I mentioned our Wiffle Ball games and the many tulips we beheaded.

Finally, the time came to say goodbye. As I was about to leave, the neighbor currently living in the Daly’s old house said, “You know, I’m glad you mentioned about the tulips. They keep sprouting up and I had no idea where they came from.”

As Halina and I drove away, the thought of those tulips – Mr. Daly’s legacy to the neighborhood – filled me with a warm glow. The experience reminded me that legacies can take many forms, be they video biographies or tulips – and that they enrich and inform the lives of the generations that follow.

Nice job, Mr. Daly.

Start planning your video biography interview – before you take another breath

I belong to the Catalina Rotary Club here in Tucson. One of the features of our weekly lunch meetings is a segment called the “Member Moment.” During this time, one of our members takes three or four minutes to talk a little bit about his/her life. Well, last week one of our more senior members had some time in the spotlight – and he made his moment quite memorable. In a matter-of-fact way he sketched for us a life filled with adventures, both in peace and wartime; a life filled with business success and family joys and sorrows. As he returned to his seat at the table he and I happened to be sharing, the president of our club said, “Wow, what an incredible life. Have you had Steve do one of his videos about you?” “No,” the member replied. “It’s too late for that.” I immediately piped up and said, loud enough for the others to hear, “Too late? You’re still breathing aren’t you?”

Let’s face it: Capturing our stories and the stories of our loved ones on video has to be done while we’re breathing. There’s just no other time that’ll work. And yet, time and again, countless numbers of folks run out the clock. Take a gander at the obituaries in your local paper today. How many of those souls do you think recorded their stories as a legacy for their families? Chances are not many. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been approached after one of my presentations by people who’ve said, “What you’re doing is wonderful. I wish we’d created a video biography about my (father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, etc.) while he/she was alive.”

None of us knows what fate has in store for us. So if you have a parent, grandparent or other relative you want to interview, don’t wait. And if you’re old enough to have some stories to tell and some life lessons to share, there’s no time like the present to commit them to video.

So take a deep breath and get started. Do it today.

Video biography Webinars continue this summer: Join the fun!

So, how can you take part in a series of fun, informative and inspirational video biography workshops without flying to Tucson, Arizona? Easy – just register for Family Legacy Video’s “Video Biography Summer Session” – a series of online Webinars offering professional tips and tricks for planning and producing legacy videos – and learn in the comfort of your own home!

The series is the result of May’s successful trial run of “Video Biography 101,” Family Legacy Video’s first Webinar. Thirty attendees participated in this trial run, which was very well received. Now, Family Legacy Video is expanding its Web offerings – and you’re invited to take part.

The online series offers six sessions. The first class, a repeat of “Video Biography 101,” kicks off on Tuesday, July 28. If you’ve already attended this Webinar, you can join the series starting with the second session on August 4. Register for individual sessions, or save some money by selecting either the six-part series (including “Video Biography 101”) or the five-part series (excluding “Video Biography 101”). Choose either a morning or evening session.

Afraid you might miss a class? Don’t worry – all the classes will be recorded. If you miss one, or just want to review, you’ll receive links to the archived recordings. The registration deadline for the six-part series is July 24. For the five-part series, you’ll need to sign up by July 31.

You’ll find complete information on Family Legacy Video’s Workshops & Webinars page. Register now and join us for some hot video biography fun in the summertime!