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.


About John Mark Ockerbloom

I'm a digital library strategist at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia.
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