What is "Public Domain"
How Does a Film Enter the Public Domain?
How Do I Search for Films in the Public Domain?
Where Can I Download Public Domain Movies?
10 Best Movies in the Public Domain
How Do I Perform a Copyright Search for Films or TV Shows?
Public Domain Movie Distributors
Sources for Public Domain Footage
Reference Books on Public Domain
US Copyright Rules: Films in the US Public Domain
Public Domain is an intellectual property designation referring to the body of creative works and knowledge in which no person, government or organization has any proprietary interest such as a copyright. These works are considered part of the public cultural and intellectual heritage of content that is not owned or controlled by anyone and which may be freely used by all. According to Wikipedia: "These materials are public property, and available for anyone to use freely (the "right to copy") for any purpose. The public domain can be defined in contrast to several forms of intellectual property; the public domain in contrast to copyrighted works is different from the public domain in contrast to trademarks or patented works."
This guide concerns films in the Public Domain. For a guide to all types of creative works (books, photos, music, software, etc.), see the Public Domain Sherpa. This site provides helpful information on finding and using public domain material in the United States.
Please note that the laws of various countries define the scope of the public domain differently, making it necessary to specify which jurisdiction's public domain is being discussed.
For laws specific to the United States, see the section "US Copyright Rules: Films in the US Public Domain" included at the end of this guide.
For more information, see also:
Fishman, Stephen, The Public Domain: How to Find & Use Copyright-Free Writings, Music, Art & More by Stephen Fishman. Berkeley, CA: Nolo, 2006.
A film's protected status and protectable life begins with the initial commercial showing, the copyright registration date, or the in-notice date - whichever comes first. To help people understand the general principals of why a film enters the public domain, Festival Films has put together a helpful synopsis, which is reproduced below.
Although there is no single method for determining if a film - or parts of it - is in the public domain, most have entered the public domain because they were:
A detailed discussion of these concepts follows.
Publication of materials without notice caused the materials to immediately fall into the Public Domain. The law required that a copyright notice consisting of the Year, the word copyright or the symbol for copyright (©) in its place, and the name of the claiming copyright owner. The notice had to be clearly displayed and readable somewhere in the opening or closing credits of a film or television production. Publication of a defective notice was the same as publication without notice and the work would fall into the Public Domain. Examples of films released without © notices are Night of the Living Dead, McLintock!, Carnival of Souls, some 1950s TV shows and many Roger Corman films.
Registration of a motion picture with the Library of Congress is always required. Because of neglect or the feeling they would have no future value, some films were never registered -- from 1930s B-films produced by Principal Pictures, to an occasional A-feature like LIFE WITH FATHER, to numerous 1950s TV series such as "Westinghouse Studio One." Initially, prompt registration was called for in the law but the courts have interpreted that period might extend for the full 28 year period. Failure to register during that period caused the materials to fall into the Public Domain. Films made before 1964 that were never registered, can NOT be registered and protected at this late date.
Most films are promptly registered TODAY. However, since the period allowed for registration is inadequately defined, a film bearing notice can be registered at any time during the registration life span (currently 95 years from the date produced). So no penalties under law exist until the work is placed under copyright protection by registration. The term Non-Registered (N.R.) applies to these unregistered but still protectable materials that includes made-for-TV movies, foreign films and others made after 1964 that have not yet been registered. Under the current copyright law they still can be registered by someone connected with theoriginal production, but until that time they can be sold and used as public domain.
Initially under copyright law the first Registration with the Library of Congress was for a term of 28 years, and that term could be renewed for another 28 years for a total protected term of 56 years. Failure to renew 28 years after a movie or TV show was made is the main reason that American films made before 1964 are currently in the public domain.
In 1966 Congress prepared a new copyright law that extended protection to 75 years from the date a film was released. This same extension applied to films which had not entered the Public Domain prior to 1966. Thus any film in copyright after 1909 and renewed automatically had its copyright period extended to 75 years. In 1992 legislation extended to films made prior to 1978 and after 1963 the automatic extension of their initial copyright. Such films were automatically protected without copyright renewal. This law did not set aside the requirement under law for prompt registration for film made PRIOR to 1978 and as such failure to register those films within the copyright registration period of 28 years automatically transferred the materials to the Public Domain.
In 1998 an additional 20 years was granted to the copyright period making all films for 1923 on available for a 95 year period of protection. All films made BEFORE 1923 are permanently in the public domain. Through all of these extensions, American films which had already fallen into the public domain for the reasons sited above continued to be public domain.
There are hundreds of movies, cartoons and dozens of television shows that are now in the public domain, which means that they may be shown at public screenings without violating copyright laws. Some of these movies are considered classics such as George Romero's Night of the Living Dead(1968), Charlie Chaplin's The Kid(1921), and Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934 version). The copyrights to many of these movies were either not properly registered initially or were not renewed and therefore the content is now in the public domain.
NOTE:There is no definitive "slam dunk" certainty or official list when it comes to the question of whether a film is in the public domain. Because a film can incorporate cinematography, drama, literature, music, art, and/or trademark, it is more difficult to determine the public domain status of film than for any other media. Unfortunately, there is no single method for determining if a film, or parts of it, is in the public domain.
Following are some online resources for finding listings of films and television shows believed to be in the public domain.
List of Films in the Public Domain in the United States (Wikipedia)
This is an incomplete Wikipedia list, which may never be able to satisfy certain standards for completion. It provides an alphabetical list, A through Z.
Infodigi's Public Domain Resource
Infodigi provides an list (in alphabetical order from A through Z) of films that are probably in the public domain. If you plan to use one of these films we recommend that you consult with an attorney to ensure that it meets the standards.
OpenFlix provides a directory of movies commonly thought to be in the public domain and works their owners are willing to let be distributed. Use of movies in the public domain, though, is limited by difficulty of identifying works that truly do not have any proprietary interests. Through dialogue, OpenFlix hopes to resolve some of the confusion.
For more information, see also:
Film Superlist: Motion Pictures in the U.S. Public Domain , a series of copyright reference books created by attorney Walter Hurst (1930-1991).
Internet Moving Image Archive
Many of the most famous movies and cartoons are available for free viewing and free download at this site - a subsite of the Internet Archives (www.archives.org) - which provides near-unrestricted access to digitized collections of moving images. The largest collection is comprised of over 1,200 ephemeral (advertising, educational, industrial, and amateur) films made from 1927 through the present. Broadcast quality copies can be purchased through Getty Images.
Public Domain Movie Torrents hosts a wide variety of movies now in the public domain.
For information regarding film or TV copyright searches, contact:
U.S. Copyright Office
Reference and Bibliography Section - LM451 Library of Congress
Washington, DC 20559-6000
Phone: (202) 707-6787
Fax: (202) 252-3485
These are some companies that distribute public domain films for commercial purposes such as transferring to different formats for retail sale and generating stock footage.
Festival Films claims that it carries the largest selection of public domain feature films in the world.
National Archives and Records Administration
Motion Picture, Sound and Video Unit
NARA has an extensive collection of films created for and produced by the U.S. government that are in the public domain, including military films, educational and documentary films (1915-1976). NARA also has gift materials from private sources, such as Universal Newsreel releases and outtakes (1929-67). You can search some of their holdings using the ARC online catalog.
For further information, contact:
National Archives and Records Administration
Special Media Archives
Motion Picture, Sound, and Video Unit 8601
Adelphi Road College Park, MD 20740
Internet Moving Image Archive
Provides near-unrestricted access to digitized collections of moving images. The largest collection is comprised of over 1,200 ephemeral (advertising, educational, industrial, and amateur) films made from 1927 through the present. Broadcast quality copies can be purchased through Getty Images.
There are books that purport to list films in the public domain, but they should be used only as a preliminary source of information. The Film Superlist: Motion Pictures in the U.S. Public Domain and Motion Picture Copyrights & Renewals 1950-1959 (bibliographic citations below) expand upon Library of Congress publications of the Catalog of Copyright Entries by providing renewal information. However, even for films where no renewal was found, you will need to check further. Be sure to read the introductory matter when using either publication.
Listed below are some basic United States copyright rules taken from the United States Copyright Office's Circular 15a Duration of Copyright: Provisions of the Law Dealing with the Length of Copyright Protection. (You will need Adobe Acrobat to read this .PDF document link). For more detailed and official information about the copyright status of film and television works, please consult the website of the United States Copyright Office. The website has a wealth of information concerning copyright, including a comprehensive list of frequently asked questions, a complete collection of their publications, and registration forms. There is also an online database of registrations and renewals since 1978.
Films Published in the US before 1923
All films that were published in the United States before 1923 (i.e. they came out in 1922 or earlier and they first appeared in the US as opposed to another country) are in the public domain.
However, there are several potential problems with assuming pre-1923 movies lack copyright protection. Most of these are silent movies, so if there is a musical soundtrack it may have been added anytime and be protected. A particular version of a pre-1923 movie may have been altered (re-edited, colorized, etc.) giving copyright protection to the changed material. Many pre-1923 that are still available have had some restoration. It is unclear whether a restored version qualifies for copyright protection.
Films Created By and For the US Government
Except in fairly rare cases where the US government commissioned a film and expressly allowed the producer to maintain copyright, all films from the US Government are in the public domain.
The US may maintain copyright protection in foreign countries. In addition, films made by local and state governments may or may not be in the public domain.
Films Published in the US 1923 to 1963
Films published first in the US (as opposed to another country) between 1923 and 1963 were initially granted a copyright term of 28 years. If a renewal application was properly filed with the Copyright office sometime during the 28th after initial publication, copyright protection gets extended for an additional 67 years (i.e. 95 years of total protection).
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. Many issues concerning the inclusion of copyright and possibly copyright protected materials in films have not been resolved.
Films Published in the US Prior to March 1, 1989
Before March of 1989, Films first published in the US had to have a copyright notice to be eligible for copyright protection. A copyright notice has three pieces: 1) the © symbol (or the word Copyright or the abbreviation Copr.); 2) year of first publication; and, 3) the copyright owner.
With some rare exceptions, US films prior to March 1, 1989 without proper copyright notices entered the public domain as soon as they were published.
Films Published March 1, 1989 to Present
The only films published anywhere after March 1989 in the US public domain are US Government Films and ones that the producer dedicated to the public domain.
Films First Published Outside the US
Prior to GATT, NAFTA, and other treaties, foreign films had to follow the same rules as ones originally published in the US. These treaties retroactively relaxed the requirements of copyright renewal and notice for foreign films. While many foreign films published 1923 or after used to be in the US public domain, currently almost none are.
For films first published outside the US before 1923, almost all are in the US public domain. In addition to the provisos listed above for US pre-1923 films, there is another exception for foreign published films between 1909 and 1923 that were first published without a copyright notice (or based on a published work without copyright notice). The Online Books Page does an excellent write-up of this exception.
Need more assistance determining whether or not a movie is in the public domain? Contact the Sights and Sounds Department at (410) 396-4616 or e-mail us through our Ask a Question service.