Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Digging into the Past: Watching Public Domain Films Online

We've all seen them. When video tapes first came out, and then later DVDs, the market was swamped by unknown video/DVD companies releasing a group of movies that had all passed into the public domain (PD). Some of those titles were: The White Zombie (1932), Impact (1949), D.O.A. (1950), Quicksand (1950), The Big Combo (1955), The Last Man On Earth (1964 – the original film version of the 2007 I Am Legend), Night of the Living Dead (1968). They always seemed to be the same 70 or 80 films. Well, now you don't have to go to the cut-rate vid store to see any of these offerings.

There are several sites on the internet that allow you to watch/download movies and other PD material. Some are better, but one of the best (yet difficult to search through) is Internet Archive (http://www.archive.org/). Internet Archive is a website that not only contains 400,000+ of PD “Moving Images” (movies, TV shows, shorts, government documentaries ... you name it, and if it's in the public domain, you'll probably find it), but also music, audio files (such as old-time radio plays), books, software, and any other ephemera you can think of. This site is obviously inspired by Napster, because 'volunteers' post the material on the site and then others watch or download it from the site. Internet Archive confirms the material is PD before they allow it to go up on the site.

What defines a piece of intellectual property that is now in the PD? There are two main ways. One, each country sets a time limit on copyright ownership for books, movies, music, etc. For example, books might hit the PD after 50 years unless you pay to renew the copyright for another period of time. The other is a bit head spinning, and there's a perfect example of this on Internet Archive. For example, in the running of credits, if the producers of a film neglect to put a proper copyright acknowledgement on the movie, the picture can and does immediately enter the PD. What's improper? Improper is when you fail to put in the credits any copyright information at all; failure to put the words copyright and/or the © symbol; and failure to say who is the holder of that copyright. What's the perfect example? John Sayles 1984's The Brother From Another Planet. Someone forgot to put the copyright information up properly, so the day it opened in the theatres, the film entered the PD. If you've never seen this film, you will find a very good copy of it on Internet Archive, and it's free and completely legal.

There's one caveat. A few years ago, The Brother From Another Planet was restored and John Sayles added a commentary track. The DVD, with the commentary track, is covered by copyright because Sayles commentary is properly protected. (Ironically, the version Internet Archive put up was this one, but they stripped away the commentary. Removing this track put it back into PD. Confused? Yeah, it can be a little bit dizzying.)

Jeanne Cagney and Mickey Rooney in Quicksand
However, on the first night I went on Internet Archive, I watched something different: the Mickey Rooney film noir, Quicksand (1950). This is a film I'd never heard of, and except for a weak/soft ending, it's a well-made B-movie noir. Rooney plays a garage mechanic who one evening has the opportunity to take the new hot gal out on the town (Jeanne Cagney – yes, James' sister). Unfortunately, he's skinned. A friend owes him $20, but can't pay until the next day. He decides, for one night only, to swipe the money from the garage's cash register. Through very believable circumstances, the money he owes escalates from $20 to $100 to $300 to $3000 in two or three days. He commits crime after crime to try to get out of the hole. All this, so he can take out a hot dame. This is a classic noir plot: the basically honest guy who, because of the femme fatale, ends up dead/up the crick/in prison, what have you. Rooney is credible as the panic escalates and Cagney is very good as the hot dame. (The good girl – played by Barbara Bates – who tries to rescue Rooney is a drip, so you know why Rooney is attracted to the femme fatale.) There are two copies on the site. Watch the one with the higher number of hits; it's the better print.

Internet Archive is a little bit like what it was like for me to search through movie posters and lobby cards in the now-defunct Toronto shop Memory Lane (I wrote about it here). Their search engine works fine if you already know what you are looking for, but if you don't, it becomes a bit of a treasure hunt. Most times, you will find only dross, but occasionally there is gold. So, dig in and watch one of the usual PD films, such as Quicksand, or the really unexpected, The Brother From Another Planet.

David Churchill is a film critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to http://www.wordplaysalon.com/ for more information.

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