The basic duty. The core of the law, 18 USC 2257, is this:
Whoever produces any ...film [or other media] which contains one or more visual depictions ...of actual sexually explicit conduct...shall create and maintain individually identifiable records pertaining to every performer portrayed in such a visual depiction.Seems pretty straightforward. And the definition of "produce" in the law is very broad indeed. It includes:
digitizing an image, of a visual depiction of sexually explicit conduct; or, assembling, manufacturing, publishing, duplicating, reproducing, or reissuing a book, magazine, periodical, film, videotape, digital image, or picture, or other matter intended for commercial distribution, that contains a visual depiction of sexually explicit conduct...This clearly covers "secondary producers" who repackage content originally created by others - including documentary filmmakers. I therefore think it's reasonably clear that 2257's recordkeeping duties extend to the makers of a film like The Price of Pleasure.
"Fair use" does not apply to 2257. I have encountered three arguments to the effect that 2257 does not extend to this film. The first is that the film constitutes a "fair use" of the explicit images that is permitted by law. This is something of a non sequitir, since the "fair use" defense applies only to the law of intellectual property - as reflected by the fact that the film begins with a "Fair Use Notice" that references the US Copyright Act, and not 2257. It is fine so far as it goes - the makers of The Price of Pleasure should be safe from an infringement suit by the pornographers whose work they excerpt - but is irrelevant to 2257. Nor is there reason to expect that courts would impose a "fair use" exception to 2257 based on the First Amendment, since the fair use doctrine was developed to balance the competing interests that arise in IP disputes; the court has never referred to it in discussing the regulation of child pornography, which is the basis for 2257.
Is there an "obscured genitals" exception? A second argument is that 2257 does not apply because the documentary digitally obscures the naughty bits of performers in the various porn films it excerpts, thus rendering it no longer "sexually explicit." This argument has a superficial appeal, but doesn't seem to comport with the relevant statutory definition, which is:
“sexually explicit conduct” means actual or simulated—(i) sexual intercourse, including genital-genital, oral-genital, anal-genital, or oral-anal, whether between persons of the same or opposite sex;
But what if we concentrate not on sexually explicit conduct but on the term depicts? Is this conduct still being depicted if naughty bits are obscured? Neither the law nor any regulation defines depicts. Dictionary definitions of the term are somewhat circular: decpict means represent means portray means make a picture of means depict. It is at least arguable that depict is ambiguous as to whether it includes an obscured representation. But there are two reasons why I think it should :
(1) In common usage, I think we would say that a film does depict something even part of the thing being depicted is obscured, whether by shadow or by digital effects, where it is in fact a film of that thing and identifiable as such.
(2) If depict were defined more narrowly, it would make the use of the term graphic elsewhere in the statute largely, perhaps entirely, superfluous. One traditional rule of thumb is that a statute should not be interpreted in such a way that part of it is superfluous. If Congress used narrower language in one part of the law and not another, it clearly meant for them to be interpreted differently, and reading depict narrowly would seem to negate this.
Of couse, the fact that 2257 is a criminal statute, and the fact that it places restrictions on speech, are two factors suggesting that it should be generally be construed narrowly. And since I think 2257 is generally a flawed, overbroad statute, I would be happy for it to be interpreted as narrowly as possible. But I think it is fairly likely that 2257 does cover films with the naughty bits obscured - certainly likely enough it would be unwise not to try to comply.
Is there an educational exception? A final argument is that The Price of Pleasure is exempt because it is an educational film. This is based on the language of federal regulations, which state:
Sell, distribute, redistribute, and re-release refer to commercial distribution ...but does not refer to noncommercial or educational distribution of such matter, including transfers conducted by bona fide lending libraries, museums, schools, or educational organizations.28 CFR Part 75(d).
At first glance, this might seem to create a broad exception for educational materials. But it doesn't, for a couple of reasons. Let's assume that the distributor of this film is in fact a "bona fide...educational organization" - it is in fact distributed by the Media Education Foundation, apparently an educational non-profit. And let's also assume that educational distribution here can include charging a fee, i.e., selling, while still falling into the exception - the "noncommercial or" would seem to suggest as much. That means the film is not covered by 2257(f)(4), which criminalizes the sale or distribution of covered material without a 2257 compliance notice (stating where age verification records are stored, etc.) And, let's assume that the regulation itself is reasonable and valid, even though a federal appeals court has stated that under the statute itself, "The plain text and definitions of the terms used admit of no commercial limitation on who will be considered producers." (This from a panel of the Sixth Circuit, which went on to hold 2257 unconstitutional in at least some sitautions. The decision has been vacated for rehearing by the full Sixth Circuit. For more on the case, see this article.)
So far, so good. But there is no textual basis for this regulatory exception to apply to 2257(f)(1) through (3), which make it a crime to produce covered material that later gets sold without including compliance notices and actually creating and maintaining accurate records. In other words, the exception seems to mean that the distributor, MEF, is in the clear - but it doesn't seem to be of any help to the filmmakers, who would still violate the law by failing to create and maintain records, and to include compliance notices.
Summing up. The above analysis is by no means exhaustive - this is a blog, not a law review - but I think it is enough to suggest that the producers of a film like this have serious reason to think they are required to comply with 2257. In other words, it's well within the CYA margin. If requiring documentary filmmakers to document the ages of performers in their source material seems impractical, even absurd - and to maintain an address where government officials can drop by anytime during business hours for the next several years to check those records - well, that's because 2257 is a badly written law. It takes the Mom-and-applie-pie premise of keeping minors out of pornography and takes it to absurd and, in some cases, likely unconstitutional lengths.