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Public domain screening rights

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6 replies to this topic

#1 of 7 OFFLINE   ShaunS


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Posted June 25 2005 - 03:10 AM

- If the film is considered in the public domain, is if legal to screen in any format? For instance an old Buster Keaton film. It's considered public domain but is ok for me to screen the Kino dvd? Do I need to pay Kino for the rights to do this?

- What is the best online source for the most up-to-date listing of public domain films?

Thanks for any help,


#2 of 7 OFFLINE   Ricardo C

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Posted June 25 2005 - 05:04 AM

I think the manufacturer/distributor holds a copyright on THEIR specific release of the public domain property, so I think they could technically forbid public screenings of their DVDs. However, I doubt they would care about a one-time thing, non-profit thing. Your best bet is to write/call and ask them.
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#3 of 7 OFFLINE   Joseph DeMartino

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Posted June 25 2005 - 05:05 AM

Well, the usual disclaimer that I am not a lawyer and not an expert in copyright. Oh, and that you haven't provided enough details about the film and your plans for even someone who IS to really answer the question. Posted Image

I can indirectly answer part of your question by pointiing out that there are things that would limit your ability to use a particular release of even a public domain sourced film. The underlying film might be public domain (so you'd be fine if you owned a print, for instance), but I'll be dollars-to-donuts that the musical score and the performance thereof on the Kino disc are covered by copyright, as, obviously are any bonus features.

It also depends on what you mean by "screen". Public performance is usally prohibited, regardless of whether or not there is any charge. So inviting 30 people to your house to watch a film (assuming your house will hold that many) or even 50 of your closest friends to watch it via a portable projector in your back yard would be OK, while taking that same portable projector to a park and showing the film, or putting up posters inviting strangers to watch the movie on your lawn, wouldn't be.



#4 of 7 OFFLINE   ShaunS


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Posted June 25 2005 - 05:16 AM

Sorry for the vagueness of my original post. Here's some more info:

I'm with a film society and we do various screening events around town. Some we charge admission, some we don't. At the moment we have a public performance licence from Criterion Pictures that covers us to publically screen films distributed by the companies they represent, no matter what format.

Specifically I'm curious about silent films from the early 1920s that are in the public domain. Our society puts on a series of silent films with live bands performing each year. There are a few films we'd like to do this for that are not included in our licence but are in the public domain.

I'm wondering if I must contact the specific companies that release the dvd or whether that since the film is in the public domain I can do a public screening with admission no matter what the format.

Thanks again for any help.


#5 of 7 OFFLINE   Mark Philp

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Posted June 25 2005 - 02:05 PM

Having been involved in programming a film society for many years I can tell you that,in general, you can have public screenings of PD films. However, while the original version is in the public domain, versions that have "substantial changes" which include restoration and musical scores may be copyrighted.

If your screening is going to be public then I suggest you get premission from the distributor, especially if you are going to charge admission.

I know some groups that do it on without permsission, but if it were me, I wouldn't take a chance.

#6 of 7 OFFLINE   Keith Paynter

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Posted June 25 2005 - 04:40 PM

but I'll be dollars-to-donuts that the musical score and the performance thereof on the Kino disc are covered by copyright

This is where the film's distributor can claim copyright. If the (silent) film is in the public domain, and if you can find a way to present the film without the soundtrack (boring as that may be) and any ancilliary material, you're likely able to do so.

Several silents have Gaylord Carter scores and performances from the days of Blackhawk non-theatrical prints protecting the copyright of better versions (Image/Kino) vs. public domain cheapies. The issue of music rights was behind the copyright restoration of "It's A Wonderful Life", but if you wanted to screen a print of the original Night Of The Living Dead, you could so since the film never had a copyright notice put in the credit sequences.

I could take Chaney's Phantom Of The Opera, write my own score, and try to market it, but since this PD film can be found on the shelf in dozens of incarnations for under $2.00 (or on a certain auction site for a few dollars), it's hard to justify the expense.

If you try to obtain a PD print from an NT licencee such as Criterion Pictures, you'll still be paying for print rental, but you won't likely be paying a percentage against attendance.
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#7 of 7 OFFLINE   Bill GrandPre

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Posted June 26 2005 - 08:11 AM

To use "Night of the Living Dead" as another example, the film itself is in the public domain, but I believe Elite owns the restored print of the film used on their laserdisc and DVD releases. This is why you don't see other PD companies issuing the DVD with Elite's excellent transfer. I would think that you would have to ask Kino for permission to use their DVD if they enhanced, altered or restored the film in any way.
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