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Royalty Free Music > Public Domain Music > An Introduction to Films and Motion Pictures

Films and motion pictures, like music pieces do not have everlasting copyright protection, and will eventually become common property in the public domain. As with other artistic media, there are specific criteria, established by the U.S. Copyright Office that determine when films and motion pictures will fall into the public domain. Film scripts and the visual film itself are sometimes protected separately, particularly with smaller, low-budget films, with the script of a film treated as a written work; typically as part of a film contract, studios will purchase all the rights to a major motion picture script from the writer or writers to make the system of protecting the film simpler and to prevent future problems. In general, all films and motion pictures created on or after January 1, 1978 are protected automatically for the length of the filmmaker's life plus an additional 70 years posthumously. If the copyright is not renewed on these productions, they become public domain films and motion pictures after this period is over. Because films often have more than one person involved in their creation, and in the case of these joint works created by two or more authors not working for hire as part of a studio contract, the term lasts for 70 years beyond the date of death of the last surviving creator.

Films and motion pictures created before January 1, 1978 but not released or registered by that date with the U.S. Copyright Office are now given automatic copyright protection , and the duration of the protection is computed using the same life-plus-70 years method. Regardless, no visual works in either of these categories could become public domain films or public domain motion pictures before December 31, 2002 or in the case of films made after 1978, before December 31, 2047.

With works released and registered before January 1, 1978, the law gets a bit trickier. With these films and motion pictures, the older copyright law that protected the work for 28 years, and during the 28th year, the copyright on the film could be renewed for 47 years. Provisions to Copyright Law in 1976 increased copyright renewal to 95 years and helped prevent the necessity of such frequent renewals. Further laws passed in 1992 allowed films and motion pictures with copyrights obtained between January 1, 1964 and December 31, 1977 to be renewed automatically.

The complexity of many changes made to Copyright Law over the years coupled with burgeoning technology has created many issues for filmmakers. Recently many filmmakers have run into trouble, caught up in the highly intricate Copyright Law processes, and films like It's a Wonderful Life and others have become public domain films and public domain motion pictures due to confusion over copyright renewal dates.

The Internet has made the already difficult-to-explain concept of public domain films and motion pictures even more amorphous. The availability of downloadable films online, both those illegally distributed and those created specifically for the Internet as a means of sharing art with movie-lovers and other aspiring directors and producers. Since the most significant parts of Copyright Law was established before the digital age, officials are finding it difficult to keep up with the many works that have been developed because of the ease of posting, reproducing, sharing and distributing visual media online. The nature of the Internet as a vehicle for public domain implies that everything distributed or posted there should be also public domain, but this is simply not the case.

The archiving of films and motion pictures since the beginning of the industry has been inconsistent at best. Sadly, at the dawn of the motion picture industry, many films were recycled in order to reclaim the silver in the film itself, and some original works that would likely be public domain films and motion pictures and help piece together the exciting history of the medium have been destroyed. There are no complete motion picture libraries, and the libraries of public domain films and motion pictures are incomplete.

To help assure that in the future, films and motion pictures that enter the public domain are salvaged and shared for study with the public, many Internet libraries are emerging. The purpose of libraries is to preserve the cultural artifacts of society and give the public access to them for study and enjoyment. Films and motion pictures are now a strong part of the world's history, along with music and other visual and audio pieces, but the rapid flow of technology has been bewildering to many officials and has made it difficult to keep track of all the art, music and film released each year that grows exponentially. As people embrace the Internet and accept it as a permanent part of the world, libraries are catching up and creating resources that will help nurture education in digital technology and the world of motion pictures. Many organizations are collaborating with major U.S. government entities like the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian to track currently copyright-protected films as well as try to build more complete libraries of public domain motion pictures.

The goal of the libraries of public domain films is to recognize the importance of film in the history of civilization. These libraries are designed to help current filmmakers, movie-enthusiasts and scholars piece together a complete picture of the world's artistic culture that includes not only literature but also music, films, television programs, visual art and digital media.

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