When Does a Film Become Public Domain_

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When Does a Film Become Public Domain?

When a film is copyrighted it is protected from plagiarism and may not be recreated or reused in any capacity without explicit, written permission from any and all copyright holders. Many films, though, become public domain and are then subject to potential recreation and open reuse regardless of U.S. copyright laws. In fact, any screenplay, footage, or motion picture film that is public domain can be recreated or otherwise used in other film projects without plagiarism risk, but when does a film become public domain?


How Films Become Public Domain

Before we look at when films become public domain, let’s first take a look at how films fall into the public domain designation. Films that are public domain are not protected by U.S. copyright. And can be used by others without permission or the need to request permission.

There are several ways that a film can become public domain for example:

  • The copyright expires. 
  • Copyright owner fails to renew the copyright. 
  • The copyright owner willingly places the video into public domain. This process is known as “dedication.”

When Does a Film Become Public Domain?

As you can see, a film is not public domain if it is protected by U.S. copyright. However, once a copyright expires, or the filmmakers fails to renew the copyright following the terms of U.S. copyright law, the film becomes public domain. But, when does a film become public domain? 

U.S. motion picture copyrights expire 95 years after the copyright is registered. Or 120 years after creation according to the terms of copyrights for work made for hire. Films become public domain upon expiration of the copyright. 

Prior to 1978

Films created prior to 1978 have varied copyright lengths, but the terms regarding public domain are very much the same and as soon as the copyright expires, the film becomes publicly available for use. 

A film may also become public domain immediately after production if no copyright is ever sought and / or if the filmmaker chooses to create the film specifically for public use and designates it public domain.

This process is called “dedication” and it may take place anytime after a film is produced.

Changes in Copyright Law U.S. to U.K.

Keep in mind that copyright laws vary from one country to the next.

While a copyrighted film in the U.S. legally becomes public domain 95 years after the copyright is registered or 120 years after the creation of the film, laws in the U.K. only protect films for a period of 70 years.

From the end of the calendar year in which the last person from the following list of creators dies:

  • The principal director of the film.
  • The screenplay author.
  • The author of film dialogue.
  • The composure of any music that was created specifically for the film.

So, when does a film become public domain?

The answer is that U.S. films become public domain either 95-120 years after the film is copyrighted or created. Or when the creator of the film designates the film to be public domain.

However, in the U.K. a film becomes public domain 70 years after the death of important creators involved in the film. So, before you consider a film public domain, make sure you are fully aware of copyright laws in your country.

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