Most of my business involves the sale and use of public domain films. I advise new customers to familiarize themselves with the PD concept -- how, when and why certain films become public domain and can therefore be re-sold, shown on TV, the Internet or almost any use you want to do with them. It can be confusing, so to clarify it in my own mind I wrote up a discussion of copyright and public domain about 8 years ago and posted it on my website. While I may generalize a bit attempting to make it understandable, it is worth reading. If anyone is aware of gross errors, please let me know!
First is the Stanford Copyright and Fair Use Website. Go to their home page and click on "Overview" in the top bar, which will lead to dozens of links about Copyright, Fair Use and Public Domain. I have had some contact with Stanford these past ten years since I am one of the plaintiffs in the ongoing "Golan vs. Holder" case. The latest setback was in June 2010 as you can read about HERE. I should devote a column to this. In brief:
Plaintiffs brought this action challenging the constitutionality of Section 514 of the Uruguay Round Agreements Act (“URAA”), Pub. L. No. 103-465, § 514, 108 Stat. 4809, 4976–81 (1994) (codified as amended at 17 U.S.C. §§104A, 109), which granted copyright protection to various foreign works that were previously in the public domain in the United States.
We did not feel it was constitutional for the copyright law to be changed retroactively so that older films which we had been using as public domain, like "Triumph of the Will" and "Metropolis," were suddenly again protected by copyright. For the record, I do not think that was right! The next and final route for the appeal to repeal is the Supreme Court. Stanford Law School and students, to their great credit, do all the legal work at no charge to the plaintiffs since they feel it is a right fight for the good of the public.
Except this refers only to copyrighted works becoming public domain in Europe. In the USA, nothing ever changes. The corporate powers keep changing the copyright laws so they will own everything forever. Seems like it anyway. There is a whole lot more at the site, hours of reading, including a 75 page comic book that goes into the intricacies or making a documentary film these days because of all the rights, incidental logos and music and ringtones and on and on that might show up in the real world you are filming.