June 29, 2006

Good-bye Old Films

Is the demise of an entire generation of American film at hand? That sounds overly dramatic, but it's true. I meant to write about this bit from Larry Lessig's Free Culture last week, but forgot. In 1998 Congress passed the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, which extended the terms of existing copyrights for another twenty years. So now, any films, books, or works of art produced after 1923 won't begin entering the public domain until 2019 at the earliest—provided, of course, that Congress doesn't extend copyrights again before then, which it probably will at the behest of Disney and friends.

So here's the problem. The vast majority of films produced after 1923 have no continuing commercial value. They're just sitting in vaults gathering dust. There's obviously no need to extend their copyrights; if no one's currently making any money off these films, they might as well enter the public domain. But thanks to the CTEA, they can't. (A more sensible copyright law would have extended copyrights only for those owners who actually wanted to extend them; but that's not the law Congress passed—all copyrights are affected.)

Now, these days, it's cheap and easy to restore old films with digital technology—it can cost as little as $100 to digitize an hour of 8 mm film. Many of these films could, in theory, be easily restored, and released, or put in an archive, for people to watch. But thanks to the CTEA, it's not cheap and easy. Anyone who wanted to restore one of these films would have to track down the owners of the copyright—no small task—and then hire a lawyer, lest they commit a felony. That's way too much effort and expense just to restore some arcane old movie that only a few people might enjoy. So no one does it.

And the worst part is that by the time the copyright for a lot of these obscure films expires, in 2019 and beyond, the film for these movies—which were produced on nitrate-based stock—will have completely dissolved. They'll just be canisters filled with dust. An entire generation of movies really will have vanished, never to be watched again. I guess it's hardly the most important problem on the face of the earth, but culturally, it's a tragedy, and a rather striking example of the insanity of copyright law.
-- Brad Plumer 7:10 PM || ||