How Does a Movie Become Public Domain?

How Does a Movie Become Public Domain?

May 25, 2022 0 By Stoudman

Copyright law is extremely convoluted and confusing. This isn’t an unintended consequence, it’s an entirely intentional flaw designed to make it difficult for people to use or enjoy anything that was once under copyright.

As such, it can be very difficult to understand what is and is not public domain. This post will provide several examples of how a movie can become public domain and some of the best ways to determine the copyright status of a film.

Before we describe how movies fall into the public domain, we must offer a warning. It’s important to note that even if a movie is free and legal to use, you may still receive copyright strikes or notices on platforms such as Youtube or Twitch.

I’ve seen streamers get a copyright notice for broadcasting Night of the Living Dead, which is arguably one of the most notorious and undeniable examples of a public domain movie. There are many reasons this still happens, and we will likely cover some of them in another post in the future.


The 95 Year Mark

This is one of the most common ways that movies fall into the public domain. Copyrights for most films in the United States are active for approximately 95 years. This rule applies to all films made between 1923 and 1977.

One of the most recent examples is the Fritz Lang film Metropolis, which was released on March 13th, 1927. The movie officially became public domain on March 13th, 2022. 

However, it is important to note that even in this instance, not every version of the film is considered public domain.

In the case of Metropolis, an extended version of the film was found within the last 20 years, and that version was released under a new copyright. There are other versions such as the Giorgio Moroder edition which were also filed under a new copyright.

These more recent editions of the film are not public domain, so it’s important to make sure that the version you plan to use is the original film from 95 years ago.

That all said, hundreds of movies fall into the public domain every year when they become 95 years old. As of 2022, you can expect any movie from 1927 or earlier to be public domain.


Lack of Copyright Notice

Some of the most notable examples of public domain movies were technically never under copyright. The reason for this is that filmmakers sometimes neglect to publish films with a copyright notice.

Public Domain logo. Source: Pixabay.

At times, movies like this don’t have any copyright notice at all. However, there are also some films that use fake or inaccurate copyright notices.

Whether it has no notice at all or the copyright notice isn’t accurate, this detail often results in a movie becoming public domain. Here are a few examples of films that fall under this classification:


Copyright Was Not Renewed

Several movies have entered the public domain because their copyright was not renewed in time. All films published before 1978 are eligible for copyright renewal if they are renewed within 28 years.

For years, many studios would neglect to file a copyright renewal for films that did not perform well in theaters. This might seem strange in a world of digital streaming, but when theatrical release was the only option, it didn’t make sense to hold on to copyrights for movies that didn’t make much money to begin with.

A Drive-in Theater Sign. Many drive-in movies are now public domain. Source: Pixabay.

This is probably the most common reason that films become public domain, but it’s also one of the most difficult examples to prove. At times, you’ll have to search the US Copyright Office database to find whether or not these movies have any active copyright on file.

It’s very likely that a majority of films released in the 1930s and 1940s never had their copyright renewed. Many movies released in the 1950s and 1960s as double features for drive-in theaters either never had a copyright or the filmmakers never bothered to renew them.


How to Prove Public Domain Status

We’re not going to lie, this is not always an easy task. There’s also no profit in the effort, and studios have no incentive to announce that their films may be public domain, so it’s rare that anyone is going to do the research for you.

Of course, we’ve done a lot of work to determine the copyright status of the films on our public domain lists, but even we don’t have enough free time to devote to this research.

The best way to determine whether or not a film is public domain is to search the US Copyright Office for an active copyright file. When searching, make sure to set search limits to include the following item types:

  • Dramatic Work and Music; or Choreography
  • Sound Recordings and Music
  • Sound Recordings and Text
  • Recorded Documents
  • Motion Pictures
  • Music
  • Text

While you won’t typically find valid active copyrights for films under Recorded Documents, Text, or Dramatic Works and Music, some studios will still use copyrights such as these to affirm their ownership of the property.

An image of the search engine for the US Copyright Office. Source: cocatalog.loc.gov.

Studios have used ownership of soundtracks, music, compositions, and scripts to maintain an active copyright for films. This is actually one of the reasons why It’s a Wonderful Life is no longer public domain.

Typically, if there is no active copyright for the Motion Picture itself, the movie will be public domain. However, the most reliable examples of public domain are films that do not have any active copyright at all.

One of the best ways to make sure that you’re doing your due diligence with these searches is to search the names of the director, script writer, and composer for the film. If no copyright shows up under any of these names, chances are the movie is public domain.


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