The following should not be interpreted as legal advice. This is simply the views of layman as to how shows are selected.
Q: When you say the shows you show are in the public domain, what do you mean?
A: Prior to February 15, 1972, Radio Programs were not covered under Federal Copyright law. All the shows that we use are made for U.S. audiences and were released prior to February 15, 1972. While, there are some instances where a domestic made show made after 1972 could be considered to not be under copyright protection for want of a valid copyright notice, as all the domestic shows I want to play were made before 1969 and most were made before 1962, I feel comfortable with the shows I have.
Q: What about foreign shows such as those from Australia, the U.K., and South Africa?
A: There’s some question about the status of radio shows that were never released in the United States such as Australia’s Fat Man and Ellery Queen stories. Basically, the federal government took items that were considered to be in the public domain and declared them out of the public domain. British Broadcasts made before June 1, 1957 are not under copyright protection. However, I have no desire to argue with the BBC so will limit any use of British shows to non-BBC material. Broadcasts made in Australia before January 1969 are generally considered to be in the public domain. South Africa’s copyright laws are too vague to figure out so programs such as the Epic Casebook of Inspector Carr and the Avengers will not be considered.
Q: Aren’t there a lot of theories about Old Time Radio shows and their copyright status?
A: There are many theories posted online that state all sorts of information authoritatively, but really it’s mostly speculative. There is no case law specific to old time radio, and statutes were not written with radio in mind. Unlike movies, music, and TV shows, old time radio isn’t big business, so lawsuits are a high risk, low reward proposition. And consider that the reason networks stopped doing radio dramas is that they didn’t see a commercial future in them. And even modern radio dramas that are sold on CD don’t make massive commercial profits.
The various arguments posted online show that there could be a lot of good legal arguments held over old time radio shows in court. However, lawyers may need to do this in a mock court, as real clients will be hard to find. Until there is such a case (and as the years go by, the chances of an actual lawsuit decrease as potential clients die), there’ll be ambiguity in the law.
To most people, Old Time Radio is within the public domain, and this includes some prominent organizations and companies. While Ebay will not allow you to sell a homemade copy of TV shows like Dragnet 1967 or Coach, it will allow you to sell pretty much any old time radio show you want burned on to a CD. In addition, Archive.org has a good Old Time Radio collection free to download, all licensed as public domain.
Whatever legal arguments are made online, it’s hard to imagine the status quo changing.
Q: What about making old time radio products like T-shirts and coffee mugs? Are there any shows it is not okay to do this with?
A: Well, I can’t say for sure which stories are okay. There are several shows that would not be okay, though.
The key example is characters whose radio show may be in the public domain, but the character himself isn’t. One easy to explain example is the Superman Cartoons of the 1940s. These are in the public domain and have been sold in a variety of collections by many different companies. However, Superman himself isn’t in the public domain, while the cartoons are.
Thus, I would not recommend making any products for any character who is copyrighted for a movie or book. This is true of many radio detectives who first appeared in books or movies. Examples of such characters include:
- Boston Blackie
- Charlie Chan
- Nero Wolfe
- Philip Marlowe
- Michael Shayne
- Mr. Malone
- The Saint
- Mr. and Mrs. North
- Nick and Nora Charles
- The Abbots
This is obviously not a definitive list. So, it’s important to know the origin of the character (book, movie, or radio). However, making new works based on Old Time Radio characters is hardly new.
There have been some works that have been released based on Old Time Radio Characters. Moonstone Books has produced several novels based on characters such as Pat Novak and Yours Truly Johnny Dollar.
The It’s That Time Again is a series of short story anthologies based on Old Time shows that’s up to its 4th collection. Their rules for inclusion is that the character must have originated on radio. In their latest edition, they make it exception for Sherlock Holmes (who is generally considered to be in the public domain.)
Q: Can I perform an old time radio script with my school/theater group? Are there scripts in the public domain?
A: I really can’t say. The question is whether the script is still under copyright, which is a separate question from whether a recording of the performance is. As I don’t really have any interest in performing scripts and it’s not relevant to my podcast, I’ve had no reason to research it and therefore am sorry, but I can’t really offer any opinion.