Over A Barrel: Insurance — the Tail that Wags the Dog

Over A Barrel:  Insurance — the Tail that Wags the Dog

Unable to sleep, I tuned on CNBC – a business channel – this morning and heard an oil analyst attribute much of the spike in oil prices to the higher insurance costs surrounding the uncertainty over Iran’s near term actions.  The analyst further suggested that these days, insurance rather than any true equilibrium of supply and demand irrationally determines the price of a barrel.

Insurance, I’m discovering, plays a much larger role in life, including the arts, than we might imagine.  I was struck by this not long ago when a friend of mine, Richard Abramowitz, advised me that I’d have a hard time ever showing my documentary “The Death of Punishment” if it included a scene inside the library of a maximum security prison, where a prisoner/librarian, sat back leisurely listening to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s classic song, “Woodstock” while the camera panned along rows of books and focused on – yes, the prison library’s well stocked “True Crime” section.  Got to keep the prisoners entertained and informed!

So why couldn’t I show that?  Because the band was unlikely to allow it.  Now we do have a legal doctrine of “fair use”, which allows anybody to use small pieces of others’ work, provided we’re not expropriating, or stealing its creative core.  I was just recording the scene as it happened which included only a few seconds of the song.  I wasn’t stealing the music, the tune, the sequence or anything.  Surely this qualified as “fair use.”  Legally, sure, Richard, conceded.

But that didn’t mean any distributor would distribute the documentary.  “They’ll never get E&O insurance” Richard informed me.  And without it, no theatre will show it.  “E&O”, I learned, stands for “errors and omissions”.  Apparently few if any films are released or shown without that insurance, which protects the theatre owners from lawsuits, however frivolous.  And the insurance company will not issue the policy without the songwriter’s or performers’ release.  And the artists will not sign the release if the scene disturbs their political sensibilities.

So much for the 1st Amendment.  So much for our commitment to truth.  A higher principle intercedes:  insurance.

It’s a shame, and I haven’t made a deep study of it, but I suspect that insurance rules our lives to a greater degree than we imagine or even suspect.  I wish someone would blow the lid off this.  But if they did, perhaps no one would distribute it – not without proper insurance.