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Understanding the Expanding Public Domain

The public domain is that magical place which creators can draw inspiration from. Public domain works can be published and sold by anyone. It includes the works of Shakespeare, Dickens,  and Edgar Allen Poe. However, in the US, it doesn’t include many works made after 1922 and the public domain has remain frozen since 1998. However, on January 1, 2019, New Year’s Day will be Public Domain Day, as a plethora of works created in 1923 will enter the public domain.

Why the Public Domain was Frozen

Until the early 1990s, the public domain grew in two ways. First was expiration of the original copyright term. Works written prior to the 1976 Copyright Act  had twenty-eight year copyright terms that could be renewed for another twenty-eight years (increased to 47 years though the Copyright Act.)  If the copyright owner didn’t renew their copyright, their work came into the public domain after twenty-eight years. This is how many Hollywood movies, TV episodes, and a few books from 1963 and before slid into the public domain. Congress put a stop to this by renewing all outstanding copyrights in 1992.

The other way the public domain expanded was when the renewal term expired. That ended in 1998. Media companies led by Disney had been trying to get  the copyright extended for years. The first Mickey Mouse cartoon Steamboat Willie was set to enter the public domain in 2004. Congress passed the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act  (named after the late singer and Congressman) which added another twenty years to all Copyrights. Works passed after the 1976 Copyright had a term of the author’s  lifetime plus 70 years, and those pre-1976 works had a term of 95 years.

At the time of passage, copyright extension promotions seemed to want far more. Bono’s forth wife  and successor in Congress, Mary Bono made the point that Sonny Bono had believed Copyright should last forever. That is unconstitutional. The Constitution requires  copyright be for  “limited times.” She spoke favorably of long-time Motion Pictures Association of America Chairman Jack Valenti’s suggestion this could be worked around with a copyright term of “forever minus one day.” Opponents of further Copyright extension didn’t expect an effort that audacious, but they did expect some effort to increase the length of copyright if for no other reason than for Disney to save “Steamboat Willie.” In the end,  no effort was made and the Public domain will grow once again.

What Will Happen

At the end of 2018, copyrights on works created in 1923 will expire. On January 1, 2019, the public domain will expand.

Starting on January 1st, organizations such as Google Books and Project Guteneberg will make books written in 1923 available to readers across the Internet to download for free. Librivox will make audiobook recordings of them.  In addition, filmmakers will be able to adapt them, as will American audio drama producers such as Colonial Radio Theater.

Mystery fans will enjoy the third Agatha Christie book to enter the public domain, Murder on the Links. In the addition, one of only ten Sherlock Holmes stories still under Copyright in the United States, “The Adventure of the Creeping Man” will enter the public domain.

Silent films such as the original Ten Commandments or Charlie Chaplain’s The Pilgrim will be enjoyed online for free as well as on discount DVDs.

Filmmakers will at last be able to freely include songs such as The Charleston and Yes! We Have No Bananas Today in their films.  Churches won’t have to pay to include “Great is thy Faithfulness” in their services.  Community theaters will be able perform Noel Coward’s first play London’s Calling.  Before, doing all of these legally required paying a royalty or license fee. However that all changes in 2019.

The public domain will continue to expand, allowing free distribution of an ever-growing number of influential works. The Jazz Singer, the film that launched the era of talking pictures, is set to enter the public domain in 2024. Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Maltese Falcon will enter the public domain in 2026, and Fer-de-Lance, the first novel featuring Nero Wolfe, will enter in 2030.

Continued growth of the public domain will depend on Congress not extending copyright again. Entertainment companies have powerful lobbyists on Capitol Hill and may demand more protections. If Disney lets “Steamboat Willie” go into the public domain, they may raise a fuss at the prospect of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves entering the public domain in 2033, one year before the first Superman comics are set to become public domain.

For now though, the long overdue expansion of the public domain is beginning. Here’s hoping it continues for many years to come.  If you want more information on works entering the public domain in 2019, check out this article from the Duke University School of law. 

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My Top Six Most Wanted Missing Old Time Radio Episodes

In podcasting, few things make me happier than getting word more detective radio programs have come into circulation. Over the last few seasons, we’ve revisited several series where I’d done every available episode for only for more episodes to come available.

The list of series I would love to have new episodes for is vast. I’d love more episodes of series that have 90% of their episodes missing, such as the Fat Man and The Thin Man. I’d love episodes for shows which we have only dozens of episodes out of hundreds, such as the Saint, Barrie Craig, and Nick Carter. I’d love more episodes of series where we already have most of them such as the Adventures of Philip Marlowe, Dragnet, Richard Diamond, and Johnny Dollar.

When it comes to specific missing episodes, the list is far shorter. We have no idea what the missing episodes are about, so one missing episode could be as good as another in theory. Yet, there are some episodes where we do have tantalizing details about them that make one I’m particularly curious about. Here are my top 6:

6) Dragnet, Production 1-June 3, 1949

We are missing the very first episode of Dragnet from the radio series that ran for six years and led to four different TV series, a major motion picture, and a successful spin-off in Adam 12. Production 1 is one of only eleven lost episodes of the radio show but it’s such a historic broadcast, and it’s a shame we can’t hear it. The only reason it ranks so low is we do have Production 2, which gives us a hint of what Production 1 was like with its very different opening theme and somewhat different style. Production 1 isn’t Dragnet as most people know it, but it’s still the beginning of the series, and I’d like to be able to hear it.

Note: This episode is one various sites frequently claim to have for sale, but when you listen to the episode, it’s actually Production 2.

5)Yours Truly Johnny Dollar: The Lonely Hearts Matter, Episode 4: April 28, 1956

The fifteen-minute Johnny Dollar serials with Bob Bailey are the best audio dramas of radio’s golden age. Thankfully, they are almost entirely intact, with only four installments missing. Three of these missing episodes are Parts Two or Three. If a chapter is going to be missing, one of these middle chapters is best as most plot developments are readily captured in recaps.

However, the Lonely Hearts Matter is missing Episode Four. In my opinion, that’s the second worst episode to be missing. The worst possible episode to not have is the final episode of the serial since you don’t know how the story ends. Episode Four is critical as it’s in this episode that Johnny begins to move towards the solution and the drama of the final chapter is set up. As it is now, the Lonely Hearts Matter is not a satisfying listen. The leap from parts three to five is a huge one.We can read about what happened in part four thanks to John C. Abbott’s definitive book on Johnny Dollar. However, there’s nothing like actually hear the episode.

4) Yours Truly Johnny Dollar: The Curly Waters Matter, 02/01/1959

After the end of the serial era, the show resumed the typical half-hour format. Most episodes were entirely self-contained. So while we may not have all the episodes, we don’t need them to understand the episodes we do have. One exception to this is the Curly Waters Matter. This episode is missing and that’s bad for two reasons. First, it introduces Betty Lewis who would be a recurring character for the last year and a half of the Bob Bailey era as Johnny’s first and only ongoing girlfriend. In addition, the plot for next week’s program’s (The Date of Death Matter) is a bit of a sequel to this one. Many of the events are recapped, so you can understand what went on in that episode, but it’s disappointing we couldn’t hear these events for ourselves.

3)Let George Do It: George Meets Sam Spade-09/26/1947

Dennis at the Digital Deli located a tantalizing ad from a newspaper for the radio series, Let George Do It with the caption, “George Meets Sam Spade.”

The radio show doesn’t exist in circulation (only one episode of Let George Do It from 1947 does), so we’re left with a lot of questions. Was this an actual team-up between George Valentine and Sam Spade despite being on different networks? Was it a guest appearance by Sam Spade actor Howard Duff on Let George Do It? Was it a situation where a parody of Sam Spade appeared, perhaps voiced by Elliott Lewis who worked for Mutual around this time and could be a soundalike for his friend Duff. We’ll never know until the episode is found.

2) Dragnet-The Big Cop-Original Air Date: 08/02/1951

This is the only radio/television episode of Dragnet from the 1950s to tackle the issue of police corruption. A listener emailed me with the theory the radio and TV versions of this episode were being suppressed. It doesn’t require a conspiracy. Hundreds of thousands of hours of 1950s radio are missing. That said, I’d love to see how Dragnet dealt with this topic in the 1950s.

Note: This is another episode that is often listed as being available for sale, but the episode sold is an unrelated burglary case.

1) Matthew Slade-The Day of the Phoenix, Part Three: July 1964

This episode concluded the 1960s Detective series Matthew Slade, Private Investigator. It aired in 1964, a couple years after the official end of the Golden Age of radio. The absence of the concluding episode of the Day of the Pheonix is why I’ve held off on doing this series.

This episode is tantalizing because there’s evidence it exists. It’s listed in the Digital Deli’s log, and I saw the episode for sale on a now-defunct website that offered Old Time Radio MP3 CDs. I didn’t buy it because of the seller’s shady setup, but it does give hope the show is out there.

We’re running out of great detectives that we haven’t done yet, so we may end up running Matthew Slade without Day of the Phoenix.

If you have any of these episodes, I’d love to hear them and to share them with my audience. Before emailing me, please be sure that you’ve listened to the episode and verified it is what it purports to be. (Particularly with the missing Dragnet episodes.)

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You Ought to be on DVD Revisited, Part One

Back in 2012, I wrote a series of articles about old movies and TV programs which ought to be on DVD but weren’t. Since that time, more material has been released on DVD, but still much of it remains elusive. So how much progress has been made in the last six years in getting great stuff to viewers? We’ll take a look.

The first article I wrote covered some vintage mystery series that were noticeably absent from DVD shelves. I’ve previously reported the serious progress made with Warner Archives releasing all the Perry Mason films  and six Philo Vance films.

Since then, there’s been a few releases. Let’s take a look at how the detectives I listed six years ago have fared:

Philo Vance:

Five years ago, there were six Philo Vance movies on DVD, now there are nine. The last three are post-War films, Philo Vance Returns with William Wright, and Philo Vance’s Gamble, and Philo Vance’s Secret Mission with Alan Curtis. Reviews seemed to be decidedly mixed about the quality of these releases. These are not from Warner Archive, but from a small company and let the buyer beware. Sadly, most of the William Powell stories as well as the Philo Vance case I’m most curious about (The Gracie Allen Murder Case) are still not available.

Hildegard Withers:

In 2013, Warner Archives released all six Hildegard Withers movies. Edna May Oliver is great when she plays the role, not so much for Zasu Pitts, but they’re all worth at least one watch.

Ellery Queen:

A mystery the Maestro himself couldn’t solve is why the Ellery Queen films starring Ralph Bellamy and the great William Gargan haven’t had a release.

The Lone Wolf:

In 2013, there had been one Lone Wolf film released. Since then, there have been two more, Counter-Espionage and Passport to Suez. These DVDs are made by Sony. All three of these DVDs contain one movie about an hour in length and cost around $20. For comparison’s sake, you can get the Perry Mason box set with six movies for $24.

Boston Blackie:

Sony has still only released two of the fourteen Boston Blackie films, both of them for a little bit less than $20.

After discussing movie series, I dedicated an entire article to Nero Wolfe and the lack of DVD releases outside of the excellent 2001 A Nero Wolfe Mystery series. There’s been some good news recently. A DVD box set has been released including the entire 14 episode Nero Wolfe TV series starring William Conrad and the very good Thayer David TV Movie based on the Doorbell Rang (not League of Frightened Men as I erroneously stated six years ago) which was a pilot for the series.

Other adaptations remain unavailable including the 1930s movies and the 1960 pilot with William Shatner as Archie Goodwin. Further, my hope of having a subtitled version of the 1960s Italian Nero Wolfe TV series released on Region 1 DVD with subtitles is probably a pipe dream. The series looks great from clips I’ve seen, but the only way to understand it will get an all-region DVD player and learn Italian. On the bright side, the 2012 Italian Nero Wolfe series has been released on region 1 DVD with English subtitles, so that gives me a little hope.

Then I took a look at films whose radio presence peaked my interest. The next year, one of those films, Mask of Demetrios, made it on to DVD and turned out to be a good movie. Sadly, none of the other three films I listed (Chicago Deadline, Mr. and Mrs. North, and To the Ends of the Earth) have been released.

We’ll return next week and take a look at what progress has been made on the rest of the titles I covered in 2012.

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A Look at Our Miss Brooks

Our Miss Brooks is the most popular and beloved of the post-War sitcoms, airing from 1948-57. It was on television from 1952-56 and came to theaters. The television version lacks an official DVD release, so only a few public domain episodes are easily available. We’ll be focusing on the radio version.

The series began in 1948, focusing on Connie Brooks, an underpaid English teacher at Madison High School who was a boarder in the House of Miss Davis. The series covers Brooks’  troubles with an authoritarian principal and trying to win the man she’s in love with, bashful biologist Philip Boynton.

Originally, Shirley Booth was chosen to star and a pilot was recorded featuring her, but she wasn’t a good fit. Eve Arden won the starring role and it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the part. She had a great sense of comedic timing and near perfect delivery, always generating a laugh at the right time. In addition to her relationship frustrations, Miss Brooks was beset by financial problems. And, again, Principal Osgood Conklin’s  constant demands went above and beyond any reasonable interpretation of her job description.

Conklin was played by Gale Gordon and his character makes the series what it is. Conklin is an authoritarian and a bit of an egotist. He strictly enforces all rules, including ones he himself ignores. A character like this could become obnoxious, yet Gordon makes him fun. He has signature lines, such as the most incredulous of, “Oh you do…” to someone whose opinion he thinks is preposterous. He also has a classic delayed reaction where he goes on calmly for several seconds before realizing what someone said and responding.

Conklin was humanized a bit. He often suffered from Miss Brooks’ accident-prone nature. By the end of most episodes, Conklin has got his comeuppance, which makes for good catharsis.

Mr. Boynton was played from 1948-53 by Jeff Chandler and thereafter by the Robert Rockwell, who played the role on television. Boynton is a biology teacher and tone-deaf to romance. He likes Miss Brooks but doesn’t express it even though they date quite a bit. He’s cheap and rarely pays for anything with Miss Brooks. His idea of a hot date is a trip to the zoo. He’s obsessed with his biology animals and will often demur on more exciting opportunities.

Miss Brook’s landlady Mrs. Davis (Jane Morgan) serves as a warm, supportive figure who is hilariously absentminded. Walter Denton (Richard Crenna) is a squeaky-voiced teenager who lavishes Miss Brooks with praise and frequently drives her to school. He’s also a representative of the students and often locks horns with Mr. Conklin.

Harriet Conklin (Gloria McMillan) rounds out the regulars as Conklin’s daughter and Walter’s girlfriend. She was level-headed, intelligent, and kind. Major recurring characters included Miss Enright (Mary Jane Croft), a fellow English teacher who was a rival for Mr, Boynton’s affections. Most of her episodes featured an entertaining verbal catfight between her and Miss Brooks. Stretch Snodgrass (Leonard Smith) was a stereotypical “dumb jock” but a well-realized one, always managing to create laughs through his malapropisms and his inability to keep anything straight. Gerald Mohr played at least two different French Teachers in order to be stereotypically French and romantic.

The stories are standard sitcom fare that relies on the characters and the cast’s chemistry in order to make the plots work. The stories reflect the culture of the times and the expectation of teachers to maintain a high moral standard. Mr. Conklin would sometimes take this to excess and raise concerns about Miss Brooks and Mr. Boynton’s “fraternization.” However, they’d been dating for at least five years and still addressed each other as Miss Brooks and Mr. Boynton even away from work. They were far above most people’s standards. The series reflects a more innocent time in entertainment.

The show does have its weaknesses. Many episodes require Miss Brooks and company to convince people of an outrageous whopper of a lie. The problem is the lies are so outlandish and the deception has such low consequence for the truth coming out, the show comes off as dumb rather than funny.

In addition, the series doesn’t have the heart of many other productions from the same era. Unlike The Life of Riley or The Great Gildersleeve, characters in Our Miss Brooks, never have any regrets about their actions, nor do they have heartwarming moments. The story remains a comedy all the way through each episode. While comedies should focus mostly on the funny, the lack of any emotional moments or regrets makes the characters more shallow and harder to relate to.

Still, despite its issues, the series works due to its funny situations and Arden and Gordon’s unerring timing and delivery. It is one of radio’s true classic sitcoms.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5

180 Episodes of Our Miss Brooks are available here.

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Graphic Novel Review: Jazz Age Chronicles, Volume 1

This black and white comic book collection features two stories set in the 1920s. Both feature Private Detective Ace Mifflin, a Boston-based Private Detective. He has many of the same vices as Sam Spade, but isn’t quite as good as Spade. Though he is good enough to get the job done in most cases.

In the first case, “The Case of the Beguiling Baroness,” Mifflin is hired to keep tabs on a baroness. A secret society is interested in her because of her dabbling in the black arts. When she dies, it’s just the start of the case. This one’s an intriguing mystery and a bit of a genre mash-up between a traditional private detective story and the strange tales featured in the Doc Savage and the Shadow pulp magazines. This one works okay, but Mifflin’s role in this is a bit confused. He’s out of his element, and the hero is supposed to be Clifton Jennings, who hired him. This one could have worked better.

The second case is, “Vote Early, Vote Often.” Mifflin gets in trouble, gets his license suspended, and runs into a whole lot of political corruption. All as he tries to help a friend get free of a murder charge. It’s a good noirish story with a neat mystery to unravel. Mifflin works far better in this story and he is in his element. Of the two tales in the book, I preferred this one more.

Overall, this is a decent graphic novel collection and a nice read if you’re a fan of 1920s’ detective and pulp fiction stories.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5

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