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  • Writer's pictureCarrie Specht

Classic Films in the Public Domain

When it comes to classic films public domain is easy to understand, but often difficult to determine. In simple terms, the phrase means just that: free and unrestricted access to the public. Meaning that if a film is in the public domain then anyone, any where has the right to use that film in any way without cost. But which films are actually in the public domain, and how did they get there? Well, I‘m not fluent on the matter, but I recently performed some consulting regarding this subject and my research revealed a lot of interesting and useful information, not to mention some real surprises.

First of all it’s important to understand that public domain pertains to whether or not something has a copyright. When films are made they’re copyrighted for the protection of the filmmakers, making sure that they are the ones who profit from a production. But someone has to apply for that copyright, and when the time comes renew it. If that simple act was never performed, or allowed to lapse, then a property falls into the public domain. Once that happens a property will remain in the public domain forever.

Over the years the laws have changed regarding the window of opportunity for obtaining and keeping a copyright, but suffice it to say everything either produced or re-registered today is protected for 95 years. But as you go back through the years (to the 20s, 70s or whenever) the length of copyright lessens, and unless someone involved with the original production steps forward a film will fall into public domain. It happens every day.

Now, because the laws were so very different when the film industry was starting out every film made before 1923 is in the public domain. Without question, you don’t have to check anything, it’s just a given. And most of the great silents made around this time were never protected because back then no one understood the value of doing so. This includes some of the best films made by Chaplin, Keaton and Fairbanks, Sr, not to mention Lon Chaney! Can you believe it? The Immigrant, The Cameraman, The Thief of Bagdad and The Phantom of the Opera are all in the public domain! Some due to age and others due to lack of foresight, and that’s when things get interesting.

That same lack of foresight applies to many other great classics. Because people didn’t see the potential for future revenue many films fell into the public domain through neglect including Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe, and the screw ball comedy My Man Godfrey. Even films from the greatest year in movie making history, 1939 are on the list including The Little Princess, Love Affair, The Four Feathers, and John Ford’s Stagecoach. Yup, I’m not kidding, Stagecoach is in the public domain. It seems unfathomable.

What this means to the average person may not be much, but to anyone who may be looking to present a classic film in a public forum (school function, restaurant, the back yard) it means a lot. No more showing B Westerns no one has ever heard of. Films with such stars as Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant and Gary Cooper (in some of their best known roles) can flicker away without fear of infringing upon someone’s rights, or the FBI breaking down your door at any minute with a cease and desist decree.

But be warned: the tricky part comes in the format of the film you wish to show publicly. Because, although Stagecoach is in the public domain, the DVD copy Warner Bros. released is not. Nor is any other copy of a public domain film purchased from most suppliers. This is where the vendors have gotten smart. They have placed a copyright on their own presentation of the film, how it is packaged, and any special content within. That’s why you see so many famous titles for cheap at WalMart, or Target, or what have you. Someone other than the filmmaker is making a bundle on a great (free) film just by packaging it uniquely.

To avoid these traps, just use your computer to Google “movies in the public domain” and you will discover many options (too many to list here) for obtaining the public domain films of your choice. Yes, you will have to pay a fee to the provider, but once you have the film you can show it publicly to your hearts content. Or you can always hunt down an original 16, 35 or 70 millimeter print, and either get a corresponding projector or pay to have it transferred to DVD. I say the cost is worth the hassle. But, be sure to compare sites as pricing varies and some offer package deals.

In case I haven’t peaked your interested enough the following is a list of just some of the more notable films out there just waiting to be viewed by you and your friends at your next gathering. Who says you can’t get anything for free in Hollywood. You just have to know where to look.

In no particular order:

(2) Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films, most of Roy Roger’s films, nearly every Bela Lugosi film including Plan 9 from Outer Space, all of Hitchcock before 1940 including The 39 Steps, Cyrano de Bergerac, Of Human Bondage, Penny Serenade, The Stranger, A Farewell to Arms, The Mark of Zorro, The Jazz Singer, The Last Time I Saw Paris, Jungle Book, Hercules, Angel and the Bad Man, The General, The Outlaw, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (silent version), The Santa Fe Trail, McLintock (John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara), The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Sherlock Jr., The Sheik, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, The Kid, Little Shop of Horrors, The House on Haunted Hill, Metropolis (the original, not the newly restored extended version), Nothing Sacred, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Road to Bali (with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby), Detour, My Favorite Brunette, Scarlet Street, The Inspector General, and oddly enough It’s a Wonderful Life, but only without the sound! Weird, but true.

Happy hunting!

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