Everybody’s Library Questions: Finding films in the public domain

Welcome to another installment of Everybody’s Library Questions, where I give answers to questions people ask me (in comments or email) that seem to be useful for general consumption.

Before I start, though, I want to put in a plug for your local librarians.  Even though many library buildings are closed now (as they should be) while we’re trying to get propagation and treatment for COVID-19 under control, many of those libraries offer online services, including interactive online help from librarians. (Many of our libraries are also expanding the scope and hours of these services during this health crisis.)   Your local librarians will have the best knowledge of what’s available to you, can find out more about your needs when they talk to you, and will usually be able to respond to questions faster than I or other specific folks on the Internet can. Check out your favorite library’s website, and look for links like “get help” or “online chat” and see what they offer.

OK, now here’s the question, extracted from a comment made by Nicholas Escobar to a recent post:

I am currently studying at the University of Edinburgh getting masters degree in film composition. For my final project I am required to score a 15 minute film. I was thinking of picking a short silent film (any genre) in the public domain that is 15 minutes (or very close to that length) and was wondering if you had any suggestions?

There are three questions implied by this one: First, how do you find out what films exist that meet your content criteria?  Second, how do you find out whether films in that set are in the public domain?  Finally, how can you get access to a film so you can do things with it (such as write a score for it)?

There are a few ways you can come up with films to consider.  One is to ask your local librarian (see above) or professor to recommend reference works or data sources that feature short films.  (Information about feature films, which run longer, are often easier to find, but there’s a fair bit out there as well on short films.)  Another is to search some of the reference works and online data sources I’ll mention in the other answers below.

The answer to the copyright question depends on where you are.  In the United States, there are basically three categories of public domain films:

That’s the situation in the United States, at least.  However, if you’re not in the United States, different rules may apply.  In Edinburgh and elsewhere in the United Kingdom (and in most of the rest of Europe), works are generally copyrighted until the end of the 70th year after the death of the last author.  In the UK, the authors of a film are considered to be the principal director, the screenwriter(s), and the composer(s).  (For more specifics, see the relevant portion of UK law.)  However, some countries will also let the copyrights of foreign works expire when they do in their country of origin, and in those a US film that’s in the public domain in the US would also be public domain in those countries.  As you can see in the UK law section I link to, the UK does apply such a “rule of the shorter term” to films from outside the European Economic Area (EEA), if none of the authors are EEA nationals.  So you might be good to go in the UK with many, but not all, US films that are public domain in the US.  (I’m not a UK copyright expert, though; you might want to talk to one to be sure.)

Let’s suppose you’ve come up with some suitable possible films, either ones that are in the public domain, ones that have suitable Creative Commons licenses or you can otherwise get permission to score, or ones that are in-copyright but that you could score in the context of a study project, even if you couldn’t publish the resulting audiovisual work.  (Educational fair use is a thing, though its scope also varies from country to country.  Here a guide from the British Library on how it works in the UK.)  We then move on to the last question: How do you get hold of a copy so you can write a score for it?

The answer to that question depends on your situation.  Right now, the situation for many of us is that we’re stuck at home, and can’t visit libraries or archives in person.  (And our ability to get physical items like DVDs or videotapes may be limited too.)  So for now, you may be limited to films you can obtain online.  There are various free sources of public domain films: I’ve already mentioned the Internet Archive, whose moving image archive includes many films that are in the public domain (and many that are not, so check rights before choosing one to score).  The Library of Congress also offers more than 2,000 compilations and individual films free to all online.  And your local library may well offer more, as digital video, or as physical recordings (if you can still obtain those).  A number of streaming services that libraries or individuals can subscribe to offer films in the public domain that you can free free to set to music.  Check with your librarian or browse the collection of your favorite streaming service.

I’m not an expert in films myself.  Folks reading this who know more, or have more suggestions, should feel free to add comments to this post while comments are open.  In general, the first librarians you talk to won’t usually be experts about the questions you ask.  But even when we can’t give definitive answers on our own, we’re good at sending researchers in productive directions, whether that’s to useful research and reference sources, or to more knowledgeable people.  I hope you’ll take advantage of your librarians’ help, especially during this health crisis.  And, for my questioner and other folks who are interested in scoring or otherwise building on public domain films, I’ll be very interested in hearing about the new works you produce from them.

 

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Welcome to everybody’s online libraries

As coronavirus infections spread throughout the world, lots of people are staying home to slow down the spread and save lives.  In the US, many universities, schools, and libraries have closed their doors.  (Here’s what happening at the library where I work, which as I write this has closed all its buildings.)  But lots of people are still looking for information, to continue studies online, or just to find something good to read.

Libraries are stepping up to provide these things online.  Many libraries have provided online information for years, through our own websites, electronic resources that we license, create, or link to, and other online services.  During this crisis, as our primary forms of interaction move online, many of us will be working hard to meet increased demand for digital materials and services (even as many library workers also have to cope with increased demands and stresses on their personal lives). Services are likely to be in flux for a while.  I have a few suggestions for the near term:

Check your libraries’ web sites regularly. They should tell you whether the libraries are now physically open or closed (many are closed now, for good reason), and what services the library is currently offering.  Those might change over time, sometimes quickly.  Our main library location at Penn, for instance, was declared closed indefinitely last night, less than 12 hours before it was next due to reopen.   On the other hand, some digitally mediated library services and resources might not be available initially, but then become available after we have safe and workable procedures set up for them and sufficient staffing.   

Many library web sites also prominently feature their most useful electronic resources and services, and have extensive collections of electronic resources in their catalogs or online directories.  They may be acquiring more electronic resources to meet increased user demand for online content. Some providers are also increasing what they offer to their library customers during the crisis, and sometimes making some of their material free for all to access.

If  you need particular things from your library during this crisis, reach out to them using the contact information given on their website.  When libraries know what their users need, they can often make those needs a priority, and can let you know if and when they can provide them.

Check out other free online library services.    I run one of them, The Online Books Page, which now lists over 3 million books and serials freely readable online due to their public domain status or the generosity of their rightsholders.   We’ll be adding more material there over the next few weeks as we incorporate the listings of more collections, and respond to your requests.  There are many other services online as well.   Wikipedia serves not only as a crowd-sourced collection of articles on millions of topics, but also as a directory of further online resources related to those topics.   And the Internet Archive also offers access millions of books and other information resources no longer readily commercially available, many through controlled digital lending and other manifestations of fair use.  (While the limits of fair use are often subject to debate, library copyright specialists make a good case that its bounds tend to increase during emergencies like this one.  See also Kyle Courtney’s blog for more discussion of useful things libraries can do in a health crisis with their copyright powers.)

Support the people who provide the informative and creative resources you value.  The current health crisis has also triggered an economic crisis that will make life more precarious for many creators.  If you have funds you can spare, send some of them their way so they can keep making and publishing the content you value.  Humble Bundles, for instance, offer affordable packages of ebooks, games, and other online content you can enjoy while you’re staying home, and pay for to support their authors, publishers, and associated charities.  (I recently bought their Tachyon SF bundle with that in mind; it’s on offer for two more weeks as I write this.)  Check the websites of your favorite authors and artists to see if they offer ways to sponsor their work, or specific projects they’re planning.  Buy books from your favorite independent booksellers (and if they’re closed now, check their website or call them to see if you can buy gift cards to keep them afloat now and redeem them for books later on).  Pay for journalism you value.  Support funding robust libraries in your community.

Consider ways you can help build up online libraries.  Many research papers on COVID-19 and related topics have been opened to free access by their authors or publishers since the crisis began.  Increasing numbers of scholarly and other works are also being made open access, especially by those who have already been paid for creating them.   If you’re interested in sharing your work more broadly, and want to learn more about how you can secure rights to do so, the Authors’ Alliance has some useful resources.

As libraries shift focus from in-person to online service, some librarians may be busy with new tasks, while others may be left hanging until new plans and procedures get put into motion.  If you’re in the latter category, and want something to do, there are various library-related projects you can work on or learn about.  One that I’m running is the deep backfile project to identify serial issues that are in the public domain in less-than-obvious ways, and to find or create free digital copies of these serials (so that, among other things, people who are stuck at home can read them online).  I’ve recently augmented my list of serial backfiles to research to include serials held by the library in which I work, in the hopes that we could eventually find or produce digital surrogates for some of them that our readers (and anyone else interested) could access from afar.  I can also add sets for other libraries; if you’re interested in one for yours, let me know and I can go into more detail about the data I’m looking for.  (I’m not too worried about creating too many serial sets to research, especially since once information about a serial is added into one of the serial sets, it also gets automatically added into any other sets that include that serial.)

Take care of yourself, and your loved ones.  Whether you work in libraries of just use them, this is a stressful time.  Give yourself and those around you room and resources to cope, as we disengage from much of our previous activities, and deal with new responsibilities and concerns.  I’m gratified to see the response of the Wikimedia Foundation, for instance, which is committed both to keeping the world well-informed and up-to-date through Wikipedia and related projects, and also to letting its staff and contractors work half-time for the same pay during the crisis, and waiving sick-day limits. Among new online community support initiatives, I’m also pleased to see librarian-created resources like the Ontario Library Association’s pandemic information brief, with useful information for library users and workers, and the COVID4GLAM Discord community, a discussion space to support the professional and personal needs of people working in libraries, archives, galleries and museums.

These will be difficult times ahead.  Our libraries can make a difference online, even as our doors are closed.  I hope you’ll be able to put them to good use.

 

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Public Domain Day 2020: Coming Around Again

I’m very happy for 2020 to be arriving.  As the start of the 2020s, it represents a new decade in which we can have a fresh start, and hope to make better decisions and have better outcomes than some of what we’ve gone through in recent years.  And I’m also excited to have a full year’s worth of copyrighted works entering the public domain in much of the world, including in the US for the second year in a row after a 20-year public domain freeze.

Outside the US, in countries that still use the Berne Convention‘s “life plus 50 years” copyright terms, works by authors who died in 1969 are now in the public domain.  (Such countries include Canada, New Zealand, and a number of other countries mostly in Asia and Africa.)  Many other countries, including most European countries, have extended copyright terms to life of the author(s) plus 70 years, often under pressure from the United States or the European Union.  In those countries, works by authors who died in 1949 are now in the public domain.  The Public Domain Review has a “class of 2020” post featuring some of these authors, along with links to lists of other people who died in the relevant years.

In the US, nearly all remaining copyrights from 1924 have now expired, just as copyrights from 1923 expired at the start of last year.  (The exceptions are sound recordings, which will still be under copyright for a little while longer.   But thanks to recent changes in copyright law, those too will join the public domain soon instead of remaining indefinitely in state copyright.)  I discussed some of the works joining the public domain in a series of blog posts last month, in the last one linking to some posts by others that mentioned new public domain arrivals from 1924.  But I’m happy not just because of these specific works, but also because new arrivals to the US public domain are now an annual event, and not just something that happens with published works at rare intervals.  I could get used to this.

It isn’t all good news this year.  The most recent draft of the intellectual property chapter of the US-Canada-Mexico trade agreement requires Canada to extend its copyrights another 20 years, making it freeze its public domain not long after we’ve unfrozen our own in the US.  But the agreement hasn’t yet been ratified, and could conceivably still be changed or rejected.  And the continued force of copyrights from the second half of the previous ’20s while we’re entering a new set of ’20s is a reminder that US copyright terms remain overlong; so long, in fact, that many works from that era are lost or severely deteriorated before their copyrights expire.

But there’s now an annual checklist of things to do for me and for many other library organizations.  For me, some of the things to do for The Online Books Page include:

  • Updating our documentation on what’s public domain  (done) and on what versions of our site are public domain (also done; as in previous years, I’m dedicating to the public domain works that I wrote whose copyrights I control that are were published more than 14 years ago.  This year that includes the 2005 copyrights to The Online Books Page.)
  • Removing the “no US access” notices from 1924 books I’d linked to at non-US sites, when I couldn’t previously establish that they were public domain here; and removing “US access only” notices for 1879 volumes at HathiTrust, which over the next few days will be making 140-year-old volumes globally accessible without requiring author-death-date review.   (This and other activities below will start tomorrow and continue until done.)
  • Updating our list of first active renewals for serials and our “Determining copyright status of serial issues” decision guide to reflect the expiration of 1924’s copyrights.  As part of this process, I’ll be deleting all the 1924 serial issue and contribution renewals currently recorded in our serials knowledge base, since they’re no longer in force.  If anyone wants to know what they were for historical or other analytical purposes, I have a zipped collection of all our serial renewals records as of the end of 2019, available on request.  They can also be found in the January 1, 2020 commit of this Github directory.
  • Adding newly opened or scanned 1924 books to our listings, through our automated OAI harvests of selected digital collections, readers’ suggestions and requests, surveys of prize winners and other relevant collections, and our own bibliographer selections.

All of this is work I’m glad to be doing this year, and hope to be doing more in the years to come.  (And I’m already streamlining our processes to make it easier to do in years to come.)  Its the job of libraries to collect and preserve works of knowledge and creativity and make them easy for people to discover, access, and use.  It’s also our job to empower our users to draw on those works to make new ones.  As the public domain grows, we can freely collect and widely share more works, and our users can likewise build on and reuse more public domain works in their own creations.

Supporting the public domain, then, is supporting the work and mission of libraries.  I therefore hope that all libraries and their users will support a robust public domain, and have more works to celebrate and work with every year.  Happy Public Domain Day!

 

 

 

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2020 vision #5: Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin

It’s only a few hours from the new year where I write this, but before I ring in the new year, and a new year’s worth of public domain material, I’d like to put in a request for what music to ring it in with: George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which joins the public domain in the US as the clock strikes twelve, over 95 years after it was first performed.

The unofficial song for Public Domain Day 2019 turned out to be “Yes! We Have No Bananas”, one of the members of the first big class of US public domain works in the last 20 years.  That’s a fun novelty song, and certainly memorable, but not something I necessarily want to hear a lot.  In contrast, for me Rhapsody in Blue has a freshness that makes it a joy for me to hear repeatedly, right from the opening clarinet glissando (apparently the idea of clarinetist Ross Gorman, who took the scale that Gershwin had composed for the piece and gave it the bendy, slidy wail that tells you right away that this is no ordinary concert piece).  It’s brought together classical, popular, high-art and everyday music, as it’s been played and recorded countless times by jazz bands (the original scoring is for jazz band and piano), symphony orchestras, and pop musicans like Billy Joel.  Even its licensing as an theme tune for an airline hasn’t diminished it.

There’s lots of other work joining the public domain along with Gershwin’s tune.  I’ve only had a chance to mention a few others in my short series, but others have mentioned more works you may find of interest. At the Internet Archive’s blog, Elizabeth Townsend Gard writes about Vera Brittain’s Not without Honour and other 1924 works that will be in the public domain very soon.  Duke’s Public Domain Day 2020 post mentions various books, films, and musical compositions joining the public domain as well (and has more to say on Rhapsody in Blue).  Wikipedia’s various 1924 articles also mention various works that will either be joining the public domain, or becoming more clearly established there.  And Hathitrust will begin opening access to tens of thousands of scanned volumes from 1924 over the next few days.

I’ll have more to say on the new arrivals tomorrow, sometime after the midnight bells chime.  By tradition, the first tune played in the New Year is usually the public domain song “Auld Lang Syne”.  But after that, at your new years’ party or at a later Public Domain celebration, you might enjoy hearing or playing Gershwin’s new arrival in the public domain.

 

 

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2020 vision #4: Ding Dong Merrily on High by George Ratcliffe Woodward and others

It’s beginning to sound a lot like Christmas everywhere I go.  The library where I work had its holiday party earlier this week, where I joined librarian colleagues singing Christmas, Hanukkah, and winter-themed songs in a pick-up chorus.  Radio stations and shopping centers play a familiar rotation of popular seasonal songs whose biggest hits are from a surprisingly narrow date range centered in the 1950s.  And more traditional familiar Christmas carols, hymns, and songs are being sung and played in concert halls and churches well into January.

The more “classic” Christmas music often feels timeless to those of us singing and hearing it.  But while their roots often go back far, the form in which we know them is often much newer that we might think.  Notice how the list in the previous link, for instance, includes “Carol of the Bells”, dated 1936.  That’s when it was first published as a Christmas song, one that’s still under copyright.  Its roots are older, and darker, as is made clear in a recent Slate article well worth reading. As noted there, the melody is based on a Ukrainian folk tune (date unknown), its full musical setting composed by Mykola Leontovych (assassinated by a Soviet agent in 1921), and Christmas-themed lyrics written by the Ukrainian-descended American musician Peter Wilhousky (who lived until 1978).

While “Carol of the Bells” still has a number of years left to go on its copyright, another classic Christmas carol will most likely be joining the public domain in the US in just under two weeks.  Like Carol of the Bells, “Ding Dong Merrily on High” is based on a folk tune, in this case a secular dance tune first published in France in the 16th century under the title “Branle de l’Official”.  In 1924, George Ratcliffe Woodward, an English cleric already known for publishing collections of old songs, wrote lyrics for the tune recalling earlier ages, and included them in the Cambridge Carol-Book, published that year by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. Charles Wood, who’d collaborated with Woodward on the earlier Cowley Carol Book,  wrote a harmonization to go with it.  While you won’t hear it at every Christmas service, it remains widely sung this time of year.  That’s in large part because it’s so much fun to sing, with its dance-like rhythms, its long bell-like vocal runs on “Gloria” (something also heard in “Angels We Have Heard on High“), and its praise of various forms of music (musicians liking to hear good things about themselves as much as anyone else).

I don’t actually know for sure that “Ding Dong Merrily on High” is still under copyright here.  I have not found a 1951 or 1952 copyright renewal for the song or the book it was published in, but I’m assuming that, if nothing else, GATT restoration retroactively secured and automatically renewed a 1924 US copyright for the song as published in the Cambridge Carol-Book.  (Folks with more knowledge or legal expertise are free to correct me on that.)  Later published arrangements of the song may continue to have active copyrights, but only for material original to those arrangements.  1924’s remaining copyrights, on the other hand, all end in the US on January 1.   (And since Woodward and Wood both died over 70 years ago, the song’s already public domain in most other countries.)

The arrival of 2020, then, should at least clear up any ambiguity about the public domain status of the basic carol.  I appreciate that, in part because this song, like many other Christmas carols, lives in a sort of liminal space between the private property regimes set up for copyright holders and the older, more informal understandings of folk culture.  Both kinds of spaces have good reason to exist. On the one hand, it’s good to have more than a few people who can earn a living through music, and one important way many musicians do so is by controlling rights to their compositions.  On the other hand, the folk process, which originally gave rise to the tunes for both “Ding Dong Merrily on High” and “Carol of the Bells”, is also a very good way of creating and passing on shared cultural works.

Conflict can rage when two different sets of cultural expectations around creative works try to occupy the same space.  That’s one reason we’ve seen decades of conflict in academia over open access, where scholarly work is largely published by companies that depend on its control and sale to earn money, while it’s largely written by scholars who earn their money in other ways, and tend to prefer free, widespread availability of their work.  Sometimes informal arrangements work best to keep the peace.  Publishers, for instance, have grown more used to free preprint servers, and memes and fan fiction communities have become more widely accepted (and even winning awards) as long as they stay well away from unauthorized commercial exploitation (where both big and small creators tend to draw the line).

Sometimes, though, it’s best to have a more formal understanding that works are free for anyone to freely use as we like.  That’s what we’ll have when 1924’s copyrights end, and the works they cover, such as “Ding Dong Merrily on High” are clearly seen to be in the public domain.  And then, those of us who are so inclined can freely sing “hosanna in excelsis!

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2020 vision #3: The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell

“Be a realist. The world is made up of two classes–the hunters and the huntees. Luckily, you and I are hunters.”

Sanger Rainsford speaks these words at the start of “The Most Dangerous Game”, one of the most famous short stories of all time. First published in Collier’s magazine in 1924, it’s been reprinted in numerous anthologies, been adapted for radio, TV, and multiple movies, and assigned in countless middle and high school English classes.  The tropes established in the story, in which a hunter finds himself a “huntee”, are so well-established in present-day American culture that there are lengthy TV Tropes pages not just for the story itself, but for the trope named by its title.

Up until now, the story’s been under copyright in the US, as well as in Europe and other countries that have “life plus 70 years” copyright terms.  (The author, Richard Connell,  died just over 70 years ago in 1949, so as of January 1, it will be public domain nearly everywhere in the world.)  Anyone reprinting the story, or explicitly adapting it for drama or art has had to get permission or pay a royalty.  On the other hand, many creators have reused its basic idea– humans being hunted for sport or entertainment– without getting such permission.

That’s because ideas themselves are not copyrightable, but rather the expression of those ideas.  And the basic idea long predates this particular story: Consider, for instance, gladiators in Roman arenas, or tributes being hunted down in the Labyrinth by the Minotaur of Greek mythology.  But the particular formulation in Connell’s short story, in which General Zaroff, a former nobleman bored with hunting animals, lures humans to his private island to hunt and kill them for sport, is both distinctively memorable, and copyrightable.  Stray too close to it, or quote too much from the story, and you may find yourself the target of lawyers.  (But perhaps not if you yourself are dangerous enough game.  I don’t know if the makers of “The Incredibles“, which also featured a rich recluse using his wits and inventions to hunt humans on a private island, paid royalties to Connell’s estate, or relied on fair use or arguments about uncopyrightable ideas.  But in any case, Disney is better equipped to either negotiate or defend themselves against infringement lawsuits than others would be.)

Rereading the story recently, I’m struck by both how it reflects its time in some ways, and in how its action is surprisingly economical.  In 1924, we were still living in the shadow of the First World War, in which multiple empires and noble houses fell, while others continued but began to teeter.  The deadly spectacles of public executions and lynchings were still not uncommon in the United States.  And the dividing of people into two classes– those who are inherently privileged and those who are left in the cold or even considered fair game– was particularly salient that year, as the second incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan neared its peak in popularity, and as immigration law was changed to explicitly keep out people of the “wrong” national origin or race.  Those sorts of division haunt our society to this day.

Rainsford objects to Zaroff’s dehumanizing game in what we now tend to think of the story’s setup, which actually takes most of the story’s telling.  (The description of the hunt itself is relatively brief, and no words at all are used to describe the final showdown, which implicitly takes place in the gap between the story’s last two sentences.)  In the end, though, Rainsford prevails by beating his opponent at his own game.  He doesn’t want to kill another human being, but when pressed to the extreme, he adopts his opponent’s rules (at the end giving Zaroff the sporting warning “I am still a beast at bay… Get ready”) and proves to be the better killer.

With the story entering the public domain in less than three weeks, we’ll have the chance to reuse, adapt, and critique the story in quotation more freely than ever before.  I hope we use the opportunity not just to recapitulate the story, but to go beyond it in new ways. That’s what happens in the best reuses of tropes.  Consider for instance, how in the Hunger Games books, the main character Katniss repeatedly finds ways to subvert the trope of killing others for entertainment.  Instead of prevailing by beating opponents at the deadly human-hunting game the enemy has created, she and her allies find ways to reject the game’s premise, cut it short, or prevent its recurrence.

When, in 19 days, we get another year’s worth of public domain works, I hope we too find ways not just to revisit what’s come before, but make new and better work out of them.  That’s something that the public domain allows everyone, and not just members of some privileged class, to do.

 

 

 

 

 

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