How can you tell if a film is under copyright?
April 6, 2007 12:44 PM   Subscribe

Is there a definitive way to know whether a silent film is in the public domain or not?

I'm helping a friend organize a silent film series this Summer, and we're having a hard time finding out which films are, and which are not, in the public domain. Obviously the ones listed on are public domain, but what about the rest? Is there a tried and true method to determine whether a film (of any age) is still under copyright?
posted by (bb|[^b]{2}) to Media & Arts (15 answers total)
(1) the copyright has expired and has not been renewed (2) no individual elements of the film (music, literary basis of the film, etc) were copyrighted separately and are still protected by the law (3) the version of the film or video to be copied is the original work, not a colorized, restored, or otherwise altered version which may have been copyrighted as a new work. Often, an extensive search at the Copyright Office in Washington D.C. is necessary to determine the "public domain" status of a motion picture. From here.
posted by anaelith at 12:53 PM on April 6, 2007

Well, even the public domain ones are tricky. For instance: Blind Husbands (which is a terrific film, BTW) is public domain but the specifically cleaned up and remastered print on the Kino DVD is not. Sort of like how the Mona Lisa is public domain, but a professional photographer's picture of the Mona Lisa is not. How are you showing these?
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 12:55 PM on April 6, 2007

Pipped at the post!
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 12:56 PM on April 6, 2007

sort of like how a classical composition may be public domain, but a particular orchestra's performance of it is not.
posted by phaedon at 12:58 PM on April 6, 2007

Response by poster: How are you showing these?

Digital projector, off dvd... or vhs, is necessary.
posted by (bb|[^b]{2}) at 12:59 PM on April 6, 2007

Where is the series being held?

Assuming you're in the U.S., anything from before 1923 is in the public domain. (Although, as noted, a post-1923 reproduction of a pre-1923 work may still be copyrighted, if there was a creative element in the reproduction.) 1923 or later is iffy.

You might be interested in the Copyright FAQ of Project Gutenberg, which deals with things like this. It's geared towards books, but I believe the rules are the same for movies.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 1:01 PM on April 6, 2007

also, since you're exploring copyright issues connected to screening movies, you do not have to worry about clearing the songs that are in the movie, regardless of when the movie was made. its an exception to the ascap/bmi performance royalty system, and i believe it applies to "indie" theaters as much as it does major chains.
posted by phaedon at 1:01 PM on April 6, 2007

also,, more specifically if you have access to, is a great resource in finding information to contact publishers, agents, basically everybody is listed there. i imagine getting on the phone and cold-calling a few publishers or distributors, you will find people are pretty knowledgeable, and helpful.
posted by phaedon at 1:04 PM on April 6, 2007

Response by poster: Well, the majority of the films we want to show are from the great comedic triad (Keaton / Chaplin / Lloyd). I can find lots of Chaplin and Keaton on, but no Lloyd, so should I assume someone, or some entity, is holding on to the copyright on his films?
posted by (bb|[^b]{2}) at 1:04 PM on April 6, 2007

Well, the majority of the films we want to show are from the great comedic triad (Keaton / Chaplin / Lloyd). I can find lots of Chaplin and Keaton on, but no Lloyd, so should I assume someone, or some entity, is holding on to the copyright on his films?

It depends on how serious you want to be about this. If you expect a lot of exposure, I'd try my best to contact the companies that formerly held the copyright on these movies. And keep in mind, one would expect that the rights have changed hands quite frequently since these movies were first made, and that you might end up calling somebody who doesnt exactly know what they are talking about.

Stopping short of volunteering to do this for you, I hope this is some decent advice.
posted by phaedon at 1:23 PM on April 6, 2007

Where are you getting the movies from? Whomever you're getting them from might know; if they're a commercial service leasing for public performance, they're supposed to know, and if they're a library or public archive, they ought to know how to find out.

And re. DevilsAdvocate's comment, copyright clearance for books and films are entirely separate things.
posted by ardgedee at 1:27 PM on April 6, 2007

What are you doing for music? I hope you're going with live scores...what films are you considering? I have a very large repertoire of scores if you'd like to discuss it...
posted by silentfilm at 4:13 PM on April 6, 2007

We have a very talented pianist who will be improvising the score on the fly.
posted by c:\awesome at 4:16 PM on April 6, 2007

Harold Lloyd was astute enough to retain the rights to (just about) all of his films. I believe that the copyrights are now held by his granddaugher, Suzanne Lloyd. I am just reporting on information learned from this excellent DVD set.
posted by Daddio at 2:16 PM on April 7, 2007

Like someone posted before, the only hard-fast rule is that everything from 1922 or earlier is public domain. There are many silent films from the later 1920s that are public domain because their producing companies went out of business, or through an error they forgot to renew the copyright. Copyright law can be confusing though, because although United Artists did not renew the copyright on Rudolph Valentino's Son of the Shiek (1926), the original story is under copyright, so the film is also under copyright.

All of the post 1922 Harold Lloyd shorts and features are under copyright except his sound features The Milky Way (1936) and his last feature, Mad Wednesday. The Lloyd Trust will rent performance rights to his films, and most of them are available in video, 16mm, and 35mm formats.

All of Chaplin's post-1922 films are copyrighted. However, there is a dispute about whether or not The Gold Rush (1925) is copyrighted, since the original copyright was not renewed. The Chaplin Estate attempted to recopyright it after the GATT treaties, but it has not been tested in court. All of Chaplin's features and most of his First National shorts are available for rental from
posted by silent-film at 2:44 PM on September 10, 2007

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