Lou Lumenick, the cheif film critic for the New York Post, recently blogged about a Zane Grey film called “To the Last Man”. The majority of the article is analysis and praise of this obscure 1930’s Paramount film, but he also discusses the “Public Domain Hell”. His discussion of the Public Domain is brief, but it is raises interesting questions about the nature of a (hypothetical) healthy Pulic Domain.
In the second paragraph of his post, Lumenick laments that “a significant number of titles that have fallen into that gray area many film buffs call Public Domain Hell.” He doesn’t elaborate on that statement, perhaps because most of his readership fall into the “film buff” demographic. Later in the post, however, Lumenick elaborates. He explains that when a film enters the Public Domain it usually doesn’t get restored. The film can be legally copied, so there are a lot of poor qualities floating around. The studios can’t justify the cost of restoration, because once they restored the film it could be legally copied and distributed. Lumenick’s interest is apparently in having high quality prints of obscure movies available, not having those films open to remix and reinterpretation. Films that enter the Public Domain don’t get restored, so Lumenick would apparently prefer that they don’t enter the Public Domain. Lumenick praises Paramount’s ability to reclaim the copyright to “It’s A Wonderful Life” and offer exclusive access to NBC, which justified the “considerable cost of restoration”. Lumenick’s doesn’t analyze the merit of the Public Domain, he simply laments the fact that films in the Public Domain rarely get restored. His post made me wonder how a healthy Public Domain would function. If works were routinely entering the Public Domain, which ones would we value enough to restore? Would we restore any of them?
It seems that the Public Domain would preserve those films that the public values. If the public has access to them, and values them, then they can be catalogued and organized and protected from abandonment. That may apply to the relatively easy process of scanning books, but it may not apply to films. Scanning books is relatively cheap and yields a high quality copy. The process of restoring a 35mm print is tedious and expensive, which makes it difficult to crowd source the way book scanning can be. Perhaps the films would enter the Public Domain, only to be lost due to lack of preservation.
Lumenick argues that Paramount won’t restore films that are in the Public Domain because once they released the DVD of the remastered “To the Last Man”, it could be copied endlessly. However, if Paramount, or anyone else, instead restored the film and made additional 35mm prints, they could still sell the physical prints to film buffs and museums. This apparently is not enough incentive to restore an obscure film like “To the Last Man”, but what if the film in question was a Paramount classic like Hitchcock’s “Rear Window”? (interstingly, ownership of most of Hitchcock’s films, with the exception of Psycho, reverted back to him) If “Rear Window” had entered the Public Domain, and no high quality copies were available, would someone have restored it? If Paramount hadn’t “rescued ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ from PD Hell”, would it ever have been restored? If works entered the PD on a regular basis, who would preserve them? Would it be econcomical to preserve them? Would we gain access to thier intellectual property only to lose them to physical degregation?