Category: Golden Age Article

How a Movie Becomes Public Domain

You see them in the video stores. Movies that always seem to be available from a wide variety of different companies, TV shows in cheap packaging such as Burns and Allen and Sherlock Holmes. Most of these productions are in the public domain, but how did they get there?

This is a topic I’ve studied up on as we’ve added public domain movies to the Podcast. I’ve learned just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s in the public domain. There are two ways that movies enter the public domain:

1) The Copyright has expired

Prior to the passage of the Copyright Act of 1976, movies and TV shows had a copyright term of 28 years, which was renewable for another 28 years. The Copyright Act of 1976 extended the term of all works that had been renewed and were not already in the public domain for an additional 19 years. In 1992, Congress gave all works that were made before 1978 and had not entered the public domain an automatic renewal for 47 more years. In  1998, Congress approved the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension act which further extended copyrights already in existence for 20 more years.

So, what does this mean? There are several classes of films.

Films made before 1923 are almost certainly in the public domain. If a film was made in 1922 and renewed its copyright in 1950, and then been given a 19 year extension of copyright by the Copyright of 1978, the film would have entered the public domain in 1997.

For films made between 1923-1964, it’s a bit more tricky. It depends on if the film’s copyright was renewed or not. If a film was made in 1923, the copyright was renewed in 1951 and given a 19 year extension by the ’78 Copyright Act, it would have come into the public domain in 1998, except for Congress’ extension which means it won’t come into the public domain until 2018.

If on the other hand, a TV episode was made in 1963 and never renewed, it would have fallen into the public domain in 1991.

A copyrighted movie or TV show made after 1964 would have had its term extended from 28 years to 95 years through acts of Congress even if the owners had long since abandoned the work.

This doesn’t mean all works made after 1964 aren’t in the public domain. There’s another a class of works that includes more recent films.

2) The Homer Simpson Class of Works

Okay, this isn’t a term of law. However, the explanation of how the work ended up in the public domain would have earned an appropriate, “Doh!”

Before March 1, 1989, all works were required to have a copyright notice included. If you didn’t have a valid notice, the work wasn’t under copyright protection. This is really a small class of films. The most famous was the horror classic, Night of the Living Dead.  Those films that were made after 1964 that are in the DVD bin are mostly made for TV movies. Made for TV films with few exceptions have rarely had big resale values, and many of the films didn’t bother to take time to copyright something that would be watched today and forgotten tomorrow.

Of course, this doesn’t mean all films without a copyright notice made prior to 1989 are in the public domain. (No, that would be too simple.) After the passage of the Copyright Act of 1976, copyright owners had five years to correct the problem.

And of course, this doesn’t even begin to touch on the issues of foreign films, which is actually making its way through the courts. Or other little exceptions that some clever lawyers for multinational corporations can find if they put their minds to it, but this gives you the general idea of how it happens.

RIP Robert Culp

Robert Culp has passed away. As with other older actors whose work I shouldn’t be familiar with, I’m a big fan of Culp’s and Bill Cosby’s I Spy. I have it on my Netflix Instant watch queue. It was truly cool and showed forth wonderfulness. Even 40 years later it stands up pretty darn well. And Culp will definitely be missed

Bill Cosby paid tribute to his friend :

“The first-born in every family is always dreaming for an imaginary older brother or sister who will look out for them,” Cosby said. “Bob was the answer to my dreams.”

If you haven’t seen I Spy, I’ll give you a fair chance to avail yourself if you’ve got 51 minutes to spare. (yes, in the 1960s, you actually could get 51 minutes of show in an hour.) And if you’ve got another fifty minutes check out Greatest American Hero, a 1980s show featuring Culp.

Cartoons that Loved the Classics

Outside of watching a lot of old movies growing up, thanks to my dad, if I were to attribute my love of classic films and radio to anything modern, I’d have to say that the Steven Speilberg cartoons of the early-to-mid 1990s would be a strong candidate.

Steven Speilberg produced not one, but three seperate cartoon series, which stand out from most modern series in that, to one extent or another, they each payed homage to the classics that came before. The goal was to produce shows that parents could watch with their children and both have a good time.

Tiny Toons Adventures brought back some of the classic cartoon characters as professors at Acme Looniversity. One episode in particular involved one of the young cartoon characters trying to bing a long forgotten 1930s cartoon.

Animaniacs billed itself as a real throwback to the 1930s, with its premise that the three stars had starred in old style cartoons and then been locked in a water tower for over sixty years until “they escaped.” The comic stylings of Yacko Warner were very reminsicent of Groucho Marx.

But perhaps the most nostalgic of the three shows was Pinky and the Brain. The show’s plot centered around two lab mice with designs on World domination. One was a frantic manic scatterbrain, while the other was a high IQ mouse that dreamed of world domination.

The show was perhaps the most intelligent cartoon show of its time. Its plots borrowed heavily from classics of television, film, and literature, as well as its satire of modern popular culture. Pinky and the Brain offered their takes on Around the World in 80 Days,  The Third Man, and one plot even involved the Brain’s plan to take over the world through the power of radio with a parody of The Shadow. The Brain also plots to take over the World using Orson Welles famous War of the Worlds broadcast as a basis for his plot.

The Brain was consciously modeled in many ways after Orson Welles, and his entire character is somewhat reminiscent of Orson Welle’s Harry Lime. His goal of world domination should make us hate the Brain, but the audience can’t help but like him, and even pity him as he goes through his many trials.

Maurice LaMarche who did the voice of the Brain is a big Orson Welles afficianado. One of the more interesting Pinky and the Brain shorts had LaMarche recreating Orson Welle’s famous pea soup commercial in a G-rated version.

While many of the episodes have become dated by references to politicians like Clinton and Gingrich, the most timeless ones were those that took a look back to some of the best of the past.  For more on the links between Brain and Orson Welles, read here.

The Old Time Radio Show That Was Never Cancelled

“All good things must come to an end,” the old saying goes and in radio that was definitely true. Whether it was Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, the Bickersons, the Lone Ranger, Gunsmoke, Yours Truly Johnny Dollar, or Dragnet, they all bit the dust.

Well, almost all. One show that began during radio’s golden age continues to broadcast new dramas every week.  You can subscribe to the podcast online. 

Unshackled began broadcasting sixty years ago this year and has never stopped. I’d listened to Unshackled in the past, but hadn’t for a few years. When I pulled up one of the more recent episodes, I was reminded of how rare the show is. It was announced this was 3079th weekly edition of Unshackled. 

The number is mind boggling. More than 3000 weeks on the air and headed for the big “60” in the next few months.

Unshackled is a Christian Drama sponsored by Pacific Garden Mission in Chicago. It tells a true to life story each week, usually revolving around someone whose life was somehow touched by the ministry of Pacific Garden Mission, which focuses on outreach to the down and out, but it may also talk about people who were impacted by similar organizations around the country.

The show can a bit preachy, and yes, there’s plenty of Bible-quoting in the episodes. But the show has endured because of the true-to-life quality of the stories told.

One great example is the Bob Saler story arch. Mr. Saler’s life and times included being a Prisoner of War during the Korean War, getting bit by a Cobra, and having his professional life threatened with a spurious lawsuit.  That’s some life.

And that’s what keeps Unshackled on the air. The show also still has a strong old time radio touch. The music is old school, with the same music playing now that the show has played for sixty years. You can even walk in and listen to a recording session, which occurs every Saturday Afternoon.

The show is the odd survivor of the Old Time Radio era. Having begun when radio drama was king and continuing on through the years, it can boast of being heard on 1,800 radio stations around the world in more than 140 countries, and in 8 languages.

What else can be said about radio’s longest lasting radio drama other than, “Happy 60th Anniversary!”

History, The Way It Wasn’t

Time for an inaccuracy rant. posted this item for today in History for February 13, celebrating the debut of “Jack Webb’s first crime drama” on February 13, 1949 when Pat Novak began airing. 

The problem?

Webb had been doing crime dramas for nearly 2 1/2 years. He’d done an undetermined number of Pat Novak episodes in San Francisco in 1946-47 and then did 20 weeks of Johnny Madero on Mutual and 23 weeks of Jeff Regan on CBS before Pat Novak’s national premier on ABC in 1949. 

It’s great that remembered Jack Webb. It’d be nice if they got their facts straight. I’d ask for the just the facts, but Joe Friday never said that either.

I Vote For The Mayor of the Town

I make it a policy not to discuss politics on this blog, but I did want to reccomend one politician worth voting for-the Mayor of the Town.

Mayor of the Town was a radio series that ran for 7 years and I first encountered it last weekend while researching the career of Bob Bailey who made a guest appearance in the 1942-43 season.

The Mayor was portrayed by Lionel Barrymore, and those who only knew Barrymore from It’s a Wonderful Life as Mr. Potter  should give this series a listen. Barrymore’s Mayor is a fascinating character. He’s less the modern understanding of a mayor, and more the picture of the town elder from centuries past, who is to every person in town a father and friend who offers wise counsel and encouragement. In the ten episodes I’ve heard, no plot centers around the Mayor expending taxpayer funds, making a law, or applying any government force.

The Mayor is kind, wise, and patriotic. He’s the type of person people could look at and say, “I’d like my son to grow up and be like that.”  Indeed, the Mayor, a childless widower helped to raise many children in the community.

However, this is during World War II, and the Mayor’s love of the people of his town can often be heartbreaking. A lifelong friend blames the Mayor when his son dies at war.  The Mayor faces a difficult decision as to whether to tell a young nurse to join the Nurse’s corps or to get married and stay home. He prays, “God, bring them all home safe” while knowing that prayer can’t be answered.

The Mayor encounters the victims of a war: A British war orphan who cringes in terror when a plane passes overheard, a polish musician who is slowly losing the ability to hear even the beautiful music he plays thanks to being near a bomb blast near Warsaw.

The Mayor  is the master of the great speech, exhorting people to courage and patriotism in the face of adversity. To the modern ear, the Mayor may sound too preachy in his patriotism, particularly to people facing difficult life decisions.

But in the 1940s, the words of the Mayor were something different. Real people were facing these real life and death problems. They were Blue Star widows and war orphans, and people who had to make the decision to leave all their hopes and dreams behind, not knowing if they would return. And maybe the Mayor’s words could give them the courage to do it.

The show is a piece of Americana, even the commercials for Rinso reminding people that there would be no washers made for the duration of the war spoke to the austerity and shared sacrifice of the time. The Mayor of the Town is a wonderful trip back to give you a window into what made the Greatest Generation so great.

Of course, the whole series was not “all about war,” there was the somewhat odd “Papa Bear” episode, as well as typical drama-comedy fare, but Lionel Barrymore as the Mayor the scripts take on a life of their own.

Unfortunately, the episodes are not in the greatest condition. Mostly not so great .mp3s. However, the show is so good, as is Mr. Barrymore and his co-star Agnes Moorhead that I’d reccomend people take a listen to The Mayor of the Town and recapture the spirit of ’42.

Click here to listen to the first ten episodes that are available on

Did Agatha Christie Inspire the Creators of Box 13 and Let George Do It?

The great Agatha Christie may have inspired the creation of two of vintage radio’s best mystery detective series.

In Box 13, Dan Holiday ran an ad to get his adventures, “Adventure wanted — will go anywhere, do anything ”

In Let George Do It, George Valentine got his cases through a similar newspaper ad. Throughout the series, the exact wording changed, but the most famous version was, “Personal Notice: Danger is my stock-in-trade. If the job is too tough for you to handle, you’ve got a job for me, George Valentine. Write full details.”

While doing some research regarding a listener question about Agatha Christie in Old Time Radio, I may have stumbled on what inspired both sets of writers.

Agatha Christie wrote a book in 1922, featuring two detectives Tommy and Tuppence, a young man and young woman that set out to find work after the first World War. They formed the Young Adventurers, Ltd. How did  they propose to make their business work? Advertising in the newspaper. And what did their advertisement read?

“‘Two young adventurers for hire. Willing to do anything, go anywhere. Pay must be good. No unreasonable offer refused.”

Sounds very close to what George Valentine and Dan Holiday offered, and given the popularity of Christie, it seems quite likely that she inspired the use of this particular device.

The Secret Adversary, in which the Young Adventurers was formed is one of only two Agatha Christie works in the public domain in the United States and is available for reading at Project Gutenberg.