Demystifying a Complex Copyrights Mess

The DVD market for Public Domain (PD) movies and TV series has seen an increase in the past few months. Large U.S. chains such as Wal-Mart, Target, Best Buy and Circuit City buy millions of PD discs each month, while many DVD companies around the world are releasing these titles in their budget lines. Looming on the horizon is broadband delivery of motion pictures and series, while TV broadcasters, from satellite to local stations, have found these films to be perfect low cost "fillers" for late nights and weekends.

Yet there has always been confusion about what constitutes Public Domain and whether a film that is in the Public Domain in the U.S. is also in the Public Domain in other countries. Some companies have encountered legal problems in releasing what they were told were PD films. So VideoAge has gone to one of the authorities on this subject: Tom T. Moore, president of Dallas, Texas-based Reel Media International. Reel Media has a Public Domain library of over 1,600 movie and series titles, and, according to Moore, "access to over 2,000 more if someone wants them."

VideoAge: Why is there such confusion about what is in the Public Domain in the U.S. and what is in the PD in other countries?

Moore: The U.S. did not join the Berne Copyright Convention until 1989. Until then, the U.S. had its own copyright laws, which required that all films be registered for copyright protection and then renewed for protection in the 28th year after the year of copyright notice on the films. Many films were never registered, including many European and Asian films, and then many films were not renewed for copyright prior to January 1st of the 29th year (such as McLintock with John Wayne). A third way films fell into the Public Domain occurred if the producers forgot to place a copyright notice at either the front or end of the film. A good example of this was the 1963 movie Charade, which bore no notice.

The major problems that have occurred concern the non-U.S. films. As an example, a British, French or Italian film might be in the Public Domain in the U.S., but since it was produced in a country, it is not PD in any other Berne Treaty country. Several owners of PD libraries in the U.S. are either unaware of international copyright law, or worse, could care less; so they sell non-U.S-origin films, which will eventually cause the buyers legal problems.

VideoAge: Can you explain how the U.S. Copyright Law changed in 1992?

Moore: In 1992, the law changed so that any film in the Public Domain at that time would remain PD, which included any film through 1963. Any film produced after that time would be considered a "non-registered" film and could be registered anytime in 95 years from the copyright notice on the film. In reality, a 25 to 40-year-old film's producers are no longer living or the production company is no longer in business, but occasionally someone is able to answer all the requirements by the Library of Congress and copyright their film. We are always looking for older copyrighted films to represent to our many buyers.

VideoAge: Can you also explain how the GATT Treaty [ General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade] gets into the picture?

Moore: The GATT Treaty allowed foreign owners of films that had never been copyrighted in the U.S. to register them and obtain copyright protection there. Hundreds of films were registered during a two-year period in the '90s.

VideoAge: How did you begin compiling a Public Domain library?

Tom Moore: About 17 years ago, I was invited to the offices of the Nostalgia Network, which at that time had begun operations in Dallas. They had recently acquired a PD library and wanted me to sell the films internationally. When they took me into their vault, I discovered that all the titles were on 3/4 inch (u-matic) NTSC TV standard masters. Later I would learn that 90 percent of the Public Domain libraries in the U.S. were mastered in this manner, but at that time, I knew that my international clients would not accept conversions from 3/4 inch masters with 350 lines per inch to one-inch PAL TV standard masters at 650 lines per inch. I then began to buy 16mm and 35mm PD prints and doing film-to-one inch PAL transfers. Eventually that changed to Beta SP PAL and NTSC masters.

VideoAge: How does Reel Media insure that the films you license are in the Public Domain?

Moore: We actually pay for copyright searches either by a reputable search company in Washington D.C., or an official search by the Library of Congress (LOC). The search company does a much more thorough job and report than the LOC. Over the years, we have paid for over 5,000 searches. We offer our clients a search in their company's name (which gives them "due diligence" in legal terms), for a nominal fee. Internationally, we only license U.S.-origin films under Article 18 of the Berne Treaty.

VideoAge: To what do you attribute the popularity of Public Domain films?

Moore: Public Domain films allow DVD companies to sell millions of DVDs through retail chains at "bin" prices. We see movies with major stars sold as singles, doubles, triples, 10-packs, and even up to 50-packs, resulting in millions of dollars in revenue. Our classic TV series have been popular during the past few months, causing us to search for and add 30 more TV series since just last June.

On the broadcast side, classic TV-themed channels are doing well, and we are seeing more start-ups using PD films during their first few weeks or months. There is also the broadband broadcast of films coming, and they need libraries.

We see quite busy years ahead.