Ukrainian filmmaker accuses authors of Chernobyl TV series of copyright infringement. Why this story is so telling

The global premiere of HBO’s Chernobyl TV mini-series kicked off on May 6, 2019. The last episode was aired on June 3. And on June 8, Ukrainian freelance director Andriy Pryymachenko alleged that the authors of the mini-series had used his video in the first episode of Chernobyl without his consent. AIN.UA provides the story of the dispute in its entirety.


Chernobyl instantly became a hit and overtook even the Game of Thrones in popularity. For Ukraine, the mini-series became a truly landmark event, not only it drew the attention of the entire modern world to the Chernobyl disaster, but also provoked a new wave of interest in our country at large.

But not without problems. A few Ukrainians immediately claimed copyright infringement by the creators of the mini-series. First, the playwright Pavel Arie alleged that in the fourth episode of the Chernobyl they used a monologue from his play “At the Beginning and at the End of Time” without permission. Later, the director Andriy Pryymachenko discovered that the first episode featured a video that is a spitting image of his footage.

Object of dispute

The dispute revolves around the visualization of recordings of telephone conversations that took place on April 26, 1986, between the dispatcher of the central fire brigade with dispatchers of the militarized fire brigade of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Pryymachenko recreated it by transcribing the audio recordings of historical telephone conversations that are publicly available on the Internet.

He published the video on his channel back in 2013.

Pryymachenko’s original video
A scene from first episode of “Chernobyl”

“That moment, when HBO used my video in Chernobyl mini-series. (…) I am excited to be a small part of this project (even though no one asked for my permission)! I have been interested in and have been trying to spread awareness about the Chernobyl disaster by all means, and that is an unexpected twist,” writes Pryymachenko on Facebook.

Mazin and HBO’s response

The next day, the Ukrainian turned to Twitter to inform the director of Chernobyl Craig Mazin with a suggestion to start a dialogue about the incident. He also pointed to evidence that the video was copied. Namely, an error in deciphering the conversation: instead of “Commanding staff”, Pryymachenko wrote “Our staff”. The same mistake was made in HBO’s rendition.

Nonetheless, the director did not respond.

“Mr. Mazin is an active user of Twitter, who regularly posts, retweets, and likes posts mentioning him. He decided to contact me through production firms and lawyers,” Pryymachenko says in his post on Facebook.

According to Pryymachenko, a few days after his first message to HBO, the representatives of Sister Pictures wrote him claiming that the visualization was 100% owned by them.

Archive recording or copyrighted content?

The Chernobyl project on the side of Ukraine was curated by Radioaktive Films, a production studio known for its international projects. In particular, the company’s specialists were handling copyright issues with respect to objects involved in the mini-series, which was announced by Yevgeniya Yatsuta, executive producer of Radioactive Films, in a TV show “Cinema with Yanina Sokolova”.

Yatsuta mentioned the original episode of the “Vesti” news show, where they talked about a catastrophe, retrieved from archival materials, as well as a recording of the conversation between fire service operators. However, the archive could at best have audio recordings while Pryymachenko emphasized that HBO had copied his video.

Screenshots here and after by Detector.Media

In the comments section to the director’s post, the representatives of Radioaktive Films stated that the rights to use the video had been granted to them by the Chernobyl Museum in Kyiv. In addition, the video “is posted on many pages on the Internet and is considered to be created during the Soviet era.” Meanwhile, according to Pryymachenko, he has the original version of the project in After Effects and the first link to his source of the footage in the media dated April 26, 2013.

A lawyer representing the interests of HBO in Ukraine, to whom Pryymachenko referred by representatives of Radioaktive, replied to the director that she had no influence on the situation. Then he again turned to Mazin, after which he was called by Moscow lawyers representing the interests of HBO.

Those lawyers voiced the official position: “We have not seen your video. The transcription was done by a native speaker who made the same mistake (OUR STAFF instead of CHIEF OF STAFF instead of COMMANDING STAFF), just like you. We haven’t copied anything from you and our work is 100% authentic.”

Meanwhile, Facebook comments on behalf of Yatsuta and Radioaktive Films have been removed. The director assumes that the removal was prompted by HBO because the side of the “defendant” started to get confused in the testimony – either the video was copyrighted or it was retrieved from the archive of the times of the USSR.

“Initially, the executive producer of Radioaktive assured that they received the right to use my video from the Chernobyl Museum. The museum said that they did not grant any rights whatsoever. Whereas HBO lawyers say that the video was made for them. It looks like this: “You hang on there while adults are deciding everything for you,” Pryymachenko notes.

What does Pryymachenko want

According to him, he would be perfectly fine with a simple acknowledgment and mention of his authorship – he was not going to demand a fee for using the video. However, the director was jarred by the fact that the project that he created for non-commercial purpose is being monetized by western filmmakers.

“Ukrainians say: “They made a film about us, we should be grateful.” HBO didn’t just make a movie about us. They created a product to make money. The video, that was copied without my permission by the creators of the mini-series and aired in the first episode, was created by me to spread awareness about the Chernobyl disaster (…) I did not make this video to make money. I make money by filming commercials.

The only one who had to pay was the Russian television channel NTV. I immediately transferred the money to the “Come back alive” foundation, because, as I said before, I don’t have and never had planned to profit from it. This way the Russians unknowingly made a donation to support the Ukrainian army,” says Pryymachenko.

He intends to protect his copyrights for as long as he would be able to afford it. According to him, he doesn’t have any experience in legal proceedings, and lawyers say that Primachenko’s lawsuit with HBO could cost tens of thousands of dollars and months or even years of legal proceedings. Therefore, he tried to first initiate a peaceful dialogue with the creators of the Chernobyl TV mini-series.

Currently, Pryymachenko is receiving legal advice in order to understand what to do next. He is not ready to give up yet.

“Content creators need to defend their copyright. Do not let the thinking like ‘These are petty matters; I am above all of it,’ overtake you. Especially if someone decides to make money on your non-commercial work without your permission. You should always defend your rights,” he explained in his comment for AIN.UA.

“Ukraine, as an entity, is not on a global filmmaking map.”

Neither Ukrainian production nor Ukrainian law firm actually has any influence on the situation, Pryymachenko notes. And in his opinion, this is bad not only for him and other freelance film directors, whose works can be used to enrich global studios but also for the entire Ukrainian film industry.

“In order to stop big boys from Moscow from deciding for us, and for us to become an equal partner in the process, rather than its object, we need to start with creating our own product. Moviemaking (or advertising) is a process where a lot of people work systematically. And in order for many people to work together systematically, first of all, you need to respect and support your OWN PEOPLE. Here, at home.

Ukrainian production studios should make it a priority to have Ukrainian directors or cameramen film commercials for them (or movies). This is how the largest studios in the West work: they nurture local talents and represent their interests on the international market (and, of course, make money on it).

For now, the situation is as follows: we admire the productions that “shoot” commercials in Ukraine, like Apple did. But they do not shoot anything. The commercials are shot by overseas studios with their own directors and cameramen. Ukrainian production studios are the service personnel in this process: finding locations, equipment, accommodation, transportation, and the like. In this situation, Ukrainians facilitate the cultivation of Western talents. It results in our market is underdeveloped.”