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Public Domain Propagates DVD Clones

31 May, 2001 By: Ralph Tribbey

In the movie Casablanca, Claude Rains barks out the order, "Round up the usual suspects." Those words from nearly 60 years ago also describe today's DVD release market.

As the industry hovers at the 10,000 mark for titles available, the usual suspects are among them, but the figure is misleading. Some films that have, for various reasons, slipped into the public domain ("PD" isthe studio jargon for their status) seem to replicate almost on their own.

Reasons for failing to renew copyrights were many. In some cases it was because the film was sold to another studio for remake purposes and thenew owner didn't know how to renew rights.

"Throughout the '60s and '70s, many of the studios failed to renew the original 28-year copyright on some very famous films," says a studio executive whose responsibilities include fending off pirates and keeping a sharp lookout for third-party DVD releases from his studio's library of non-PD films. The original copyright law from the early 1900s called for initial protection of 28 years and a renewal term of another 28years. That changed in 1976 to a blanket 75 years that was extended to 95 years in 1998. "The change from 75 to 95 years does not 're-protect'those titles that already went PD in the meantime," the exec notes.

More than 20 companies have built instant DVD libraries using PD feature films.

The advantages are obvious: There are no royalties, no licensing payments, and little in the way of acquisition costs. With no fewer than nine different versions, Shirley Temple's 1939 The Little Princess is the reigning queen.

There's a logjam for second position, with seven versions each of John Wayne's Angel and the Badman, Cary Grant's Charade and the Bob Hope-Bing Crosby road film Road to Bali in release.

Those with six different versions are: Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps,Africa Screams, Humphrey Bogart starring in Beat the Devil, Cary Grantin His Girl Friday, director George Romero's horror classic Night of theLiving Dead, Jane Russell in The Outlaw and Ol' Blue Eyes (Frank Sinatra) in Suddenly. Another 35 different movies are available in at least four DVD versions.

The old retail saying, "promo, better, best" for pricing grades is where PD selections find a home. Many of the PD purveyors provide mass merchants with promo-priced (generally under $10), multi-title packages,the executive says.

Nashville-based Catcom DVD is poised to enter the market with a line of double features, many of which are PD. "Each release will feature two movies, cartoons and other bonus materials," says Catcom's Jake Lamb. "Our plans are to initially release 29 titles and, by the end of 2003, over 300 different double features will be available."

Counted among the June titles are the double features of Night of the Living Dead/Dementia 13, Reefer Madness/Cocaine Fiends and Santa Fe Trail/Kansas Pacific.

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