TV Detectives Locked in Copyright Jail

Recently, I got the Best of TV Detectives (affiliate link), a 150 episode collection of TV Detective shows. Despite the fact that not all of them were detective shows. (Two public domain episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and a few crime dramas) it’s been quite a treat to catch some of these shows for the first time.

There was Front Page Detective with David Chase which called to mind some of the great radio detectives in its characterization. Racket Squad, Public Defender, Code 3, and the Court of Last Resort played off of Dragnet in their mix of entertainment and education about various aspects of law enforcement and crime. The set has further spurred my interest in other TV Detective shows, long forgotten to see what can be found.

The shows can be divided into the following categories:

1) Mostly/Completely in the Public Domain: TV shows made before 1964 were given a 28 year copyright term, renewable for another 28 years.  Those shows that didn’t renew entered the public domain. Each episode had to be renewed individually. That’s why you’ll find episodes of the Dick Van Dyke Show (an otherwise copyrighted show) in dollar DVD bins. However, some shows simply didn’t renew at all. Some had a very good reason. Their network had gone belly up. The DuMont TV network produced several early television shows, but within 28 years, they were out of business, and whoever had been assigned Dumont’s Copyrights let them lapse. Other shows just lapsed for whatever reasons, perhaps official inattention as the shows weren’t being syndicated.

Just because a show has lapsed into the public domain doesn’t mean the public can actually see it. If there’s no film left, it might as well not exist.

Shows that have lapsed completely or mostly into the public domain tend to have a variable nature about the number of shows available, usually a sparse few episodes claimed from a TV station that had paid to syndicate the show one at point. The economics is simple. There’s no one with an economic incentive to care for the show or care if its episodes survive. The results: spotty prints, few prints, and many adventures lost.

2) Shows with few episodes in the Public Domain:

This category of shows was mostly renewed, but a few episodes slipped into the public domain. Examples of this include one episode of the 1960s TV show Burke’s Law that lapsed into the public domain, as well as two episodes of the very cool Peter Gunn. Next to actually being released commercially on to DVD, this could be the best possible situation for a TV Detective. An episode or two in the public domain. Fans are teased by the cheap public domain episode and made curious about other episodes, which can lead to the release of a full box set. Those who knew 1960s Detective Series Checkmate has only been available on bootleg DVDs, but the popularity of public domain episodes spurred a release of the Best of Season One and the The Best of Seasons Two. Now a complete set of all 70 episodes is set for release this year.

Copryighted And Actively Available: This is a good state for the show be in. Those shows that have been fully copyrighted and are fully available are available to watch. Shows like Perry Mason and the Rockford Files are easily accessible to mystery fans on TV and DVD, and in many cases online. Copyright preservation helps to ensure quality condition (usually) of prints, while some public domain shows can be of variable quality.

However, there is a downside to continued copyright protection when a series remains under protection but is completely unavailable.  Unlike, the public domain series, no third party can come in and make episodes available. I found quite a few interesting sounding detective serials that I’d love to see, if only they would release a DVD. Here are a few detective shows from the 1950s I’d love to see, if the respective owners would release them:

1) Johnny Midnight:

In Copyright Jail until: 2056

Edmond O’Brien, eight years after leaving Yours Truly Johnny Dollar returned to the serial gumshoe role as Broadway Star turned private detective named Johnny Midnight.  You can’t really go wrong with Edmond O’Brien as a detective. (see DOA and the Killers for more proof.) So this sounds like an interesting series.

2) Johnny Staccato:

In Copyright Jail until 2055

John Cassavetes stars as Johnny Staccato, a Jazz musician who is a private detective. It makes me think of a  mix of Pete Kelly’s Blues and Man with a Camera. I haven’t seen much with Cassevettes. He was a television pioneer who spent much of his career behind the camera, but he was very good in a 1972 Columbo movie, Etude in Black. Rated 8.7 out of 10 by IMDB users.

3) The Line Up

In Copyright Jail: Until 2055

The Line-up was based on an old time radio show of the same name and was one of the string of police procedurals that came out after Dragnet. It was set in San Francisco and ran in syndication for many years as San Francisco Beat.  Doing a copyright search, some episodes of this show have fallen into the public domain but the public domain shows haven’t come into any type of circulation. user rating: 6.9

4) Felony Squad:

In Copyright Jail: Until 2064 

This is a show that’s a fascinating must for fans of Old Time Radio.  It stars Sam Spade’s Howard Duff  as Detective Sam Stone, who works in a major crimes unit in a Western City. The show also featured Ben Alexander of Dragnet as Desk Seargent Dan Briggs. Rated an 8.7 on IMDB. It should be noted that this show at one point, had a few episodes released on VHS, but not released on DVD.

It’s interesting to read about the show, however it would be even more interesting to watch it.  Hopefully, copyright owners will take note and begin to release legal authorized versions of these shows on websites like Hulu or DVD, so that a new generation of fans will enjoy them.

It should be noted that Hollywood can make some bizarre decisions with these DVD releases. (There are more official seasons of Bonanza available to watch in Germany than in the United States.) If you think these shows belong on DVD, or there are other shows not currently on DVD that you’d like to see, you can go to and let your voice be heard by voting for your favorites.

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