FILM / A reel of your own: Wanna own a classic movie? Catriona O'Shaughnessy explains how you can

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AMID A flurry of publicity, a new video label was launched last month to release 'carefully selected highlights' of the 35,000 films owned by American collector Jeff Aikman. The PR pitch is Aikman's life story. In 25 words or less, an ordinary middle-class boy uses his initiative to become a movie mogul at 13 and a year later has made his first million. Now 31, Aikman claims 'total copyright to over 24,000 American films' and 'worldwide rights to over 10,000 foreign films'.

However, if Aikman bought the US rights to some of these films, he must have lost the business acumen which made him a precocious millionaire, because he could have had them for nothing. Some of his initial releases at least - including Fritz Lang's Metropolis, and the 1923 Hunchback of Notre Dame starring Lon Chaney - have lapsed out of copyright in the States. They are now 'in the public domain', which means that anyone who has a print, or even a crackly copy recorded from the television, is free to exploit it. They can show it in a cinema, broadcast it on television, or sell duplicated video copies without paying a cent to the original director, production studio, or anyone else. What's more, they can copyright their own version if they significantly alter the original in some way.

With silent films, the obvious thing to alter is the soundtrack, which is exactly what Aikman did with both Metropolis and The Hunchback. He has added an original score and registered his versions with the copyright office of the Library of Congress in Washington DC. Unless he is legally challenged, anyone showing or distributing Aikman's versions must now pay him a royalty.

With public domain talkies, it is more difficult to copyright your own version. 'In order to enjoy copyright there has to be a minimum of original authorship,' explains Eric Schwartz, Policy and Planning Advisor to the US Copyright Office. 'You would have to do more than simply remove a few scenes here and there, or insert other public domain footage like missing scenes.'

Colourisation of a black and white film usually would, however, constitute sufficient original authorship, and the technique has been used on one of America's most famous public domain films, Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. Capra's film is renowned because, although it was released as recently as 1946, one of the peculiarities of the American law put it out of copyright in the early Seventies.

Until 1978, copyrighted films were protected for an initial term of only 28 years, renewable by 28 years. Due to a simple clerical error, the renewal form and dollars 3 fee did not reach the copyright office in Washington and It's a Wonderful Life entered the public domain. It was an expensive error: so far the lost royalties amount to over dollars 25 million. Whenever directors of television shows like Cheers or Roseanne want their characters to watch a heartwarming old movie on TV, they use Capra's film for the simple reason that they don't have to pay for it. The film is shown on almost every American television station at Christmas, and available on video for as little as dollars 4 (the price for a licensed film is around dollars 20).

A whole public domain video industry has now sprung up in the States, distributing cheap, often poor quality copies of PD films. Much of their trade is in B-movies from the Fifties and early Sixties where the production companies had gone out of business by the time the copyright renewal became due. But there are also major American and international films: Charlie Chaplin's silent 1925 version of The Gold Rush and the original 1937 A Star Is Born were overlooked because they had already been remade; Capra also lost his claim to Meet John Doe, and MGM missed the royalties on Till the Clouds Roll By, their musical biography of Jerome Kern; and British classics such as Carol Reed's The Third Man and Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes and The 39 Steps are now unprotected.

The PD distributors' catalogues are also full of films which they claim entered the public domain the day they were released. These are works which apparently did not comply with the old requirements that to receive protection a film had to carry the c in a circle copyright symbol and that a copy had to be deposited at the Library of Congress - foreign films such as Renoir's La Bete Humaine, Godard's Breathless and Satyajit Ray's Apu trilogy, as well as American films such as Roger Corman's 1960 version of The Little Shop of Horrors and George Romero's Night of the Living Dead.

However, the legal loopholes which have guaranteed the PD video industry regular supplies of recent films have gradually been closed up. The Americans had for some time been keen to join the Berne Convention - the international copyright agreement drafted in 1886 and signed by more than 80 countries worldwide, including Britain - and the changes to the intellectual property laws which came into force in 1978 were the first step.

They brought America into line with other Berne countries by protecting all new films, books, songs and other works of art for 75 years, or for the life of the author plus 50 years where there is a single author. The renewal period for pre-78 works was also extended to 47 years to equal the new term. Then, when America signed the Convention on 1 March 1989, it had to abolish the requirement that published works must carry the copyright notice. However, until 26 June this year when the Automatic Renewal Bill was passed, rights holders of pre-78 works still had to remember to file their renewals - or they lost all future royalties, which could amount to millions of dollars.

Eric Schwartz spent two years helping to draft the Automatic Renewal Bill, and he believes it has finally made America's intellectual property rights just. 'Public Domain of itself is not a bad thing,' he says, 'but for an author to lose 47 years of protection because of their failure to file a single piece of paper by a date they're not aware of seemed to be very unfair. It was harsh for all authors, especially for publishers of large volumes of work like songwriters who had to file renewals for each song. If they failed to file for renewal for any one of those it became public domain.

'In one case we had a widow of a songwriter come in because her husband's song passed into the public domain after his agent passed away and the people who took over didn't know that they should file renewal. They would have been collecting royalties on a hit song ('Little Bitty Pretty One', a number one hit for Bobby Day) for 47 years, but they got nothing. That is patently unfair.'

The first three releases on the Aikman Archive label, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Extase and Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow are available now at pounds 14.99


Choose a film which is in the public domain - this can be verified by paying dollars 25 for a search at the Library of Congress.

Get hold of a print and alter it in some significant way - by adding a new score to a silent, or by colourisation.

Register your claim and deposit a copy with the Library of Congress.

Unless your claim is challenged, you now own the copyright to your version of your chosen film, in America. The rest of the world, including Britain, is a different matter entirely. England was the first country to introduce laws protecting intellectual property - Queen Anne's Statute of 1709 was meant to encourage the growth of culture.

(Photograph omitted)