Finding Movies in the Public Domain
Learn what a public domain movie is, how to find movies in the public domain, and other resources.
What is "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.
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.
How Does a Film Enter the Public Domain?
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 principles of why a film enters the public domain, Festival Films has put together a helpful copyright guide.
How Do I Search for Films in the 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. 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.
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.
This is an incomplete Wikipedia list, which may never be able to satisfy certain standards for completion.
Infodigi provides a list 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.
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
To get started in your search, Wired magazine compiled this list of the 10 best public domain movies worth downloading to your computer or mobile device.
Sources for Public Domain Footage
- 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.
- Internet Moving Image Archive
Provides near-unrestricted access to digitized collections of moving images. The largest collection comprises 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.
Reference Books on Public Domain
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.
- Film Superlist: Motion Pictures in the U.S. Public Domain. Created by Walter E. Hurst; updated edition by D. Richard Baer. Hollywood, Calif.: Hollywood Film Archive, 1992-1994. (Three volumes to date, covering 50,000 films from the years 1894-1939, 1940-49, and 1950-59.)
- Motion Picture Copyrights & Renewals 1950-1959 by David Pierce. Laurel, MD: Milestone, 1989.
- The Public Domain: How to Find & Use Copyright-Free Writings, Music, Art & More by Stephen Fishman. Berkeley, CA: Nolo, 2014.
US Copyright Rules: Films in the US Public Domain
For an overview of US Copyright rules, read the Duration of Copyright: Provisions of the Law Dealing with the Length of Copyright Protection summary from the US Copyright Office.
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.
Need more assistance determining whether or not a movie is in the public domain? Contact the Best and Next Department at (410) 396-4616.
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