The answer in effect to this regards, is no, there is no central book or
publication that definitively lists whether a film is public domain or not,
for these reasons:
1) The GATT treat from a few years back, re-copyrighted 99.9% of the foreign
films made after 1923. There is no book that reflects this change that I know
2) The "Rear Window" and especially "It's a Wonderful Life" cases where
underlying rights (original book, story or music usually) are seen as
protection of the film's total copyright has also changed the landscape.
3) All films before 1923 are public domain EXCEPT if the video company has
altered the original work by using tints, changed title cards, restored or
re-edited scenes differently than the original work, or added original music.
Those specific elements are protected by copyright. This can also be applied
to post-silent films such as if a film is "letterboxed" where previous
editions were not (though this may be questionable) or if music is added to
the background to "watermark" the company's version, etc.
Saying that, there are many films that are in the public domain that can be
shown -- especially American films that were never properly copyrighted.
There are books put out for each decade by a lawyer whose name I can't
remember which lists the orignal copyright and the renewal date (pre-1976
films needed to be renewed after 28 years and many films such as "Gold Rush"
failed to be renewed though the Chaplin estate is now trying to re-register
the work under GATT as a foreign film since Chaplin was an English citizen)
though as I mentioned, the foreign films have changed since the books
publication. David Pierce also published a similar and cheaper book on the
films from the fifties though the same caveats apply.
As a distributor of "classic" films, we always use a copyright searcher
before we consider acquiring any film but that's a somewhat different
situation. Unfortunately, I recognize that libraries neither have the time,
staff or money to do the same, but it's worth going back to the original
video publisher to acquire public performance when needed. We, Milestone, and
I believe, Kino -- and I assume some other companies -- try to make the price
affordable for feature films with public performance after they've been
released on home video to encourage institutions to license films legally.
If nothing else, it supports similar work and releases. Just to point out the
expense for an independent company, it usually cost $5,000 to $10,000 just to
package and promote a film on video (whether it's public domain or
copyrighted) and that doesn't include the acquisition costs, restoration
costs and video mastering costs. That usually adds $25,000 to $100,000.
Studios can laugh and such money but thats usually a large expense to the
Dennis Doros (who just spent a fortune on new "The Sorrow and the Pity"
Milestone Film & Video
In a message dated 3/1/00 11:35:52 AM, LJANSEN@STOCKTON.LIB.CA.US writes:
<< I have two questions for the group. One is inspired by the recent question
asking if a certain Charlie Chaplin film is in the public domain. My
library has started a weekly feature film program to highlight our video
collection. We have a video projector so we can show the movies on a
big screen in our meeting room. Thanks to the generousity of our local
Friends group, we have purchased a site license through the Motion Picture
Licensing Corp. (MPLC).
1. Is there a good source or method for finding out whether or not a film
on a videocassette is in the public domain? Is there a general rule of
thumb that can be followed? For all we know there may be many videos in
our collection that we can legally show as part of our program if we could
only identify that they are part of the public domain.
2. The most frustrating aspect of the MPLC license is the stipulation that
it does not cover public showings "where specific titles have been advertised
or publicized." We received clarification from an MPLC representative that
we *can* promote specific titles on flyers in the library, in mailings to
a closed mailing list (such as members of our Friends group), and to folks
who call the library asking what we're showing. Are there other creative
ideas that MPLC license holders have used to promote their programs? >>