How do public domain movies work?

Jeremy Illingworth

Supporting Actor
Joined
Nov 12, 2000
Messages
535
First, is there a list of public domain movies? I'm guessing they're a mix of stuff that's 75(?) years old and later movies that the producers considered so worthless that the copyright need not be renewed. Or just forgot. I'm guessing that when I see a DVD of some never heard of it 50s b picture for $6 it's a public domain movie.
What does this mean? Can I buy a copy of a public domain movie and start selling copies of it? Can I sell merchandise for it? Can I remix Bridge Of Drag Strip Girl in 5.1 and sell DVDs of it without paying anybody a dime?
jeremy
 

Chad R

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Jul 14, 1999
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Real Name
Chad Rouch
Basically, yes. I'm not sure how you acquire the actual print. I don't know if you bought a copy of apublic domain movie that has been put out by a company if you could technically use it or not. But, really, as long as you just take the movie how would that company know?
If you take an example of like Shakespeare. If you perform a play that is copywritten, you have to pay a royalty to perform it. It could be a one time fee or it could be based on the number of performances. But Shakespeare you only have to acquire a copy of the play. You can download it off the internet, print it and not pay anyone a dime. So a movie is probably the same thing. You just have to get a print.
 

Peter Kline

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Feb 9, 1999
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Many of the original camera negs of PD films are still in the posession of the original copyright owner. For example, MGM somehow neglected to renew the copyright on "TIll The Clouds Roll By". Several PD versions have popped up by some companies acquiring a print of the film. Uusually the quality suffers as the print in this case had been used often. Nevertheless, MGM (now WB) still has the original elements and could still release a fine quality version of the film. I once saw a telephone sized book with some 3000 public domain films. Many are added yearly.
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alan halvorson

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Oct 2, 1998
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Let's say Criterion creates an excellent transfer of a public domain film and releases a dvd. Could another company use that transfer without permission from or compensation to Criterion? I have always believed the answer is yes but I am far from an authority.
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[Edited last by alan halvorson on September 23, 2001 at 11:59 PM]
 

Jeremy Stockwell

Supporting Actor
Joined
Aug 9, 2001
Messages
608
A couple of quick things. I work for a copyright management company in Indiana. We deal with copyrighted songs primarily, but I believe the same rules apply to all copyrights.
The copyright term was extended by 20 years in 1998 (The Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Law). So, for works that were not already in the public domain during 1998, their copyright term got extended by 20 years (from 75 maximum years to 95). The way it stands now, works that were copyrighed in 1922 or before are now and forever public domain. Anything that was still under copyright protection in 1998 will not be public domain until January 1, 2019.
That's the formula for works created before 1978. After 1978, it's the life of the creator plus 70 years (extended from life plus 50). Also in 1978, the law was changed so that renewals were no longer necessary. It is possible that works created during or after 1923 could be public domain, but only if renewals were not filed (the first one after 28 years). But copyrights created after 1950 can not be public domain because their first renewal didn't come up until after the law changed to make renewals automatic.
Regarding your question about merchandise, that gets into trademarks and patents, a field with which I am not familiar. The U.S. Patent & Trademark Office has a website that might answer some of those questions ( www.uspto.gov ). The Copyright Office also has a website you may find helpful ( www.loc.gov/copyright/ ).
Hope this helps!
JKS
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My one goal in life is to live forever.
Ya know what? . . . So far, So good! Yeah!
 

Jeremy Stockwell

Supporting Actor
Joined
Aug 9, 2001
Messages
608
Alan,
Often, the "copyright" for a movie is very, well, let's say, complicated.
There could easily be separate copyrights for:
*The original story/script
*The screenplay (which may be considered a derivative work?)
*The sound recording
*The video image
*Any pre-existing material CONTAINED in the script/screenplay/sound recording/video images, etc.
*The entire work (the collection/compilation of all of the contributing elements as a whole).
So, even if one or more of these elements ARE public domain, that doesn't mean that you can use the entire work without getting permission.
Most certainly, in the example you provided, Criterion would at least have a copyright on the entire work and you could not use it legally without their permission.
Take a movie like, "Sleepless In Seattle" for example. It has an original script and/or screenplay. It also contains sound and images from the pre-existing movie "An Affair To Remember" (1957). It also contains songs from pre-existing sources. Just there, for each song that was used in the film, there is probably a copyright on both the song as it was originally written AND on the recording that was actually used in the context of the film. It also exists as an entire work in and of itself. You can see how quickly it gets complicated.
For another quick example, since Shakespeare was mentioned, take any modern version of any one of his plays (Romeo and Juliet; Hamlet; A Midsummer Night's Dream; The Taming of the Shrew/10 Things I Hate About You; Much Ado About Nothing, just to name a few that I can think of). His plays are all most certainly public domain. But all the recent films made using his scripts have their own copyrights which prevents them from being used without permission.
JKS
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My one goal in life is to live forever.
Ya know what? . . . So far, So good! Yeah!
 

DonMac

Stunt Coordinator
Joined
Nov 12, 2000
Messages
221
Jeremy Stockwell wrote:
---
A couple of quick things. I work for a copyright management company in Indiana. We deal with copyrighted songs primarily, but I believe the same rules apply to all copyrights.
The copyright term was extended by 20 years in 1998 (The Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Law). So, for works that were not already in the public domain during 1998, their copyright term got extended by 20 years (from 75 maximum years to 95). The way it stands now, works that were copyrighted in 1922 or before are now and forever public domain. Anything that was still under copyright protection in 1998 will not be public domain until January 1, 2019.
---

That's basically it: nothing will enter the public domain for another 17 years, unless the copyright owner voluntarily relinquishes ownership.
I hate the way this law was passed. I personally would have had no complaint if the law had been changed to allow copyright owners to go through some process to extend each copyright that they own by another decade or so every time it's about to expire. The key is that the copyright owner should have to apply for an extension. However, I think automatically extending all copyrights, as the law change did, was WRONG! There are a lot of neglected works that should be slipping into the public domain, where they might have been rediscovered. But this extension basically means that they will continue to be neglected because the copyright owner won't market them due to the small return it would bring, while the public domain selling market can't legally touch them. So these works will continue to be neglected for another 20 years, or even longer if there is another extension passed by Congress.
I hope that when the 20 years extension is up in 2018, that the opposition to another automatic extension is organized enough to prevent it from happening again.
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"It is the customary fate of new truths to begin as heresies and to end as superstitions." - T. H. Huxley
 

Adrian_N

Agent
Joined
Oct 29, 2000
Messages
43
I hope that when the 20 years extension is up in 2018, that the opposition to another automatic extension is organized enough to prevent it from happening again.
Yeah, but then copyrights will be extended for another 20 years becuase the corporations wouldn't want to lose some of their "intellectual property" all of a sudden. It's hard to relenquish a monopoly. Then again, everything will be converted to a digital medium which is controlled by laws other than copyright laws, so copyright laws wouldn't matter.

As far as the Criterion edition of a public domain movie (I'm not a legal expert by any stretch of the imagination), I would think you could not copy it. Derivative works (as exampled with Shakespeare) are copyrighted, rightly so I think. As far as obtaining the actual public domain copy, I would think is relatively hard, since you have to go tot he orignal.
 

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