Copyright of Motion Picture Films

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    • #132564
      Beryl Gabel

      Good Morning,

      I am trying to find information on copyright law for motion picture films created before 1940.  Does anyone know of a good source that clearly states when motion picture films fall into the public domain?  I would be grateful for any information or sources.


    • #132569

      Scroll down to
      US Copyright Rules: Films in the US Public Domain
      The Enoch Pratt Free Library has the best website that I can find. However if you are looking for a blanket ruling, one doesn’t exist.

      Are you looking for information on a specific film?

    • #132568
      Katherine Collett

      Don’t motion pictures fall into the same copyright regulations as other published works?  If so, here’s the useful chart Cornell puts out for when works come into the public domain:

    • #132567


      Motion pictures get tricky because of their multimedia nature. An original silent film may be in public domain, but a version of the same with musical accompaniment may be copyrighted because of the music. Same goes with early Hollywood musicals. The film itself may not by copyrighted, but songs in it are, and therefore permission is needed to show it.

      Per the Pratt website “However, just because a copyright renewal was not properly filed does not mean the film lacks copyright protection. Films are often based on books, plays, or other works that may maintain copyright. If the pre-existing work is protected, than rightly or wrongly, it has generally been determined that the derived film is also protected. In addition, films are multi-layered works that make use of songs, musical scores, and other potentially protected materials such as images of artworks and trademarks.”

      In  Stephen Fishman’s The Public Domain: How to Find & Use Copyright-Free Writings, Music, Art & More. (you can read a good deal of it on Google books), he uses a good example of the derived film  His Girl Friday (1940). While the film’s copyright was never renewed, thus entering the public domain, the original play it was based on, The Front Page (1928), has had its copyright renewed and will be protected  until 2024. You would therefor have to get permission from the copyright owners of The Front Page  to use His Girl Friday.

      Fishman’s book also has a very informative step by step guide to help ascertain whether a specific film is in public domain.




    • #132566
      Beryl Gabel

      Thank you for these resources.  We have several different local films as well as some that are anonymous and I am trying to determine copyright restrictions.

    • #132565


      I wish you lots of luck on your endeavor. Should this search get complicated , might I recommend seeking out a lawyer to help? As this can get pricy, I’d suggest contacting ArtServe Michigan. They have a new project called Lawyers for Creative Economy. It looks like it hasn’t launched yet, but maybe you can get in on the ground floor.

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