Film and The Public Domain

(Charade directed by Stanley Donen and staring Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant)

Every year, countless books, songs, movies, and many more things will slip into something known as The Public Domain. “What is the public domain?” you might ask. It’s something that can be both extremely beneficial and very hurtful for works of art. When most forms of media are created, those who make it will put it under copyright. That’s what makes an illegal download of a movie or song actually illegal. They will own the pieces for a set amount of time and under certain conditions. Thinking movies, Back to the Future for example is owned by Universal Pictures and will remain there’s for many years to come.

(Night of the Living Dead by George A. Romero)

For one reason or another, a movie (or any other form of media) will slip into the public domain because copyright has come to an end or in some cases, the movies were never copyrighted to begin with. The classic horror movie the spawned the zombie film Night of the Living Dead has been in the public domain since its release. You can look up this movie on YouTube for free and have no charge brought to you if you watch it unlike, say, pirating the latest episode of The Walking Dead. With many movies slipping into the public, they will be copied, resold, and reworked, over and over again. With every copy and re-upload, these movies can degrade more and more in quality. You can easily find these movies anywhere you look but it can be extremely difficult to find them in a state of quality anywhere near what they should be.

For a lot of viewers, most people won’t care about what a movie looks like as long they can understand what’s going on and pay as little money (if any) as they can. Film buffs though can be completely left in the dark and be unlucky with viewing movies how they are intended to look and feel. I’m someone that would love to see a movie in the best way possible for the first time. Ideally, I would want to see every movie on the big screen in theaters but even if I can’t make that happen, I would want the movie to be the best and most accurate quality when I view it at home. For most movies, Netflix or Hulu will get the job done but some of those movies that no one owns will be presented as though there’s vaseline on your eyes and needles in your ears.


There are some companies that can act as the saving grace for movies that the regular public wouldn’t care about. Companies like The Criterion Collection, Arrow Films, and Kino International know that film needs to be preserved and presented in a true to form way. A number of movies in their collections such as Nosferatu, Metropolis, Charade, and more are all well known public domain properties that have been treated with the utmost care due to their historical an significant importance. The movies are restored from only the best available sources and even have unique Essays and behind the scenes created about why these movies deserve the care they are given what cultural importance they hold. If you have any major respect for cinema, I would highly request looking at any of these companies libraries and picking up something they’re restored because you’ll be given only the highest quality presentations.

I don’t want to knock the public domain by any means. If movies or any other pieces of art stay in the possession of one holder indefinitely, they may not grow in the popularity that makes them so special. Had Night of the Living Dead not been able to be played by any theater for free, it may not have risen to be as popular as it is today. If Metropolis wasn’t made free to the public and stayed in someone’s archives or even destroyed, no one would be able to appreciate the art it is today. That being said though, many films that nobody owns deserves to be given far more attention that they currently have. So much of today’s cinema and art are made in direct response to these movies and therefore should be given the love and respect of any other great film.

Leave a Reply

Skip to toolbar