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US Copyright Rules

OpenFlix is based in the United States and views copyright protection from a US perspective. Site visitors from other countries need to be aware that their own domestic copyright laws apply to their use of movies listed in OpenFlix. Copyright works for which OpenFlix obtains license will be available internationally.


Listed below are some basic United States copyright rules. Site visitors should only use this material as an initial starting point. While OpenFlix endeavors to provide accurate information these are not legal opinions and may become outdated over time.


For more detailed and official information, visitors should consult the website of the United States Copyright Office. In particular, Circular 15a Duration of Copyright: Provisions of the Law Dealing with the Length of Copyright Protection (text | pdf) should be read by anyone planning to use US public domain materials.



Films in the US Public Domain

Films Published in the US before 1923

All films that were published in the United States before 1923 (i.e. they came out in 1922 or earlier and they first appeared in the US as opposed to another country) are in the public domain.

However, there are several potential problems with assuming pre-1923 movies lack copyright protection. Most of these are silent movies, so if there is a musical soundtrack it may have been added anytime and be protected. A particular version of a pre-1923 movie may have been altered (re-edited, colorized, etc.) giving copyright protection to the changed material. Many pre-1923 that are still available have had some restoration. It is unclear whether a restored version qualifies for copyright protection.


Films Created By and For the US Government

Except in fairly rare cases where the US government commissioned a film and expressly allowed the producer to maintain copyright, all films from the US Government are in the public domain.

The US may maintain copyright protection in foreign countries. In addition, films made by local and state governments may or may not be in the public domain.


Films Published in the US 1923 to 1963

Films published first in the US (as opposed to another country) between 1923 and 1963 were initially granted a copyright term of 28 years. If a renewal application was properly filed with the Copyright office sometime during the 28th after initial publication, copyright protection gets extended for an additional 67 years (i.e. 95 years of total protection).

However, just because a copyright renewal was not properly filed does not mean the film lacks copyright protection. Films are often based on books, plays, or other works that may maintain copyright. If the pre-existing work is protected, than rightly or wrongly, it has generally been determined that the derived film is also protected. In addition, films are multi-layered works that make use of songs, musical scores, and other potentially protected materials such as images of artworks and trademarks. Many issues concerning the inclusion of copyright and possibly copyright protected materials in films have not been resolved.


Films Published in the US Prior to March 1, 1989

Before March of 1989, Films first published in the US had to have a copyright notice to be eligible for copyright protection. A copyright notice has three pieces: 1) the © symbol (or the word Copyright or the abbreviation Copr.); 2) year of first publication; and, 3) the copyright owner.

With some rare exceptions, US films prior to March 1, 1989 without proper copyright notices entered the public domain as soon as they were published.


Films Published March 1, 1989 to Present

The only films published anywhere after March 1989 in the US public domain are US Government Films and ones that the producer dedicated to the public domain.


Films First Published Outside the US

Prior to GATT, NAFTA, and other treaties, foreign films had to follow the same rules as ones originally published in the US. These treaties retroactively relaxed the requirements of copyright renewal and notice for foreign films. While many foreign films published 1923 or after used to be in the US public domain, currently almost none are.

For films first published outside the US before 1923, almost all are in the US public domain. In addition to the provisos listed above for US pre-1923 films, there is another exception for foreign published films between 1909 and 1923 that were first published without a copyright notice (or based on a published work without copyright notice). The Online Books Page does an excellent write-up of this exception.