Since the days of dial-up modems, the internet has been a never-ending source of movies, music, electronic books and television programs. The problem is that most of that content is actually owned by someone, and downloading it without paying for it makes you a pirate.
Besides being illegal — consequences can range from being cut off by your internet service provider to lawsuits and fines — content piracy also deprives the writers, filmmakers and other creative artists who actually make this stuff of the legitimate reward for all their hard work. Yes, even if most of the money goes to big media companies, it’s still not cool to be a pirate.
Fortunately, there’s a lifetime’s worth of films and books available online that you can access and keep, guilt-free. Some of it is shared freely online by generous creators, but much of this work is in what’s called the “public domain,” which means no one owns that particular piece of content.
When something is in the public domain, that generally means the legal right to own and profit from a work has either expired or just doesn’t apply. Note that for this article, I’m talking specifically about the United States (where copyright law dates back to 1790); laws and expiration dates will differ in other countries.
Copyright law in the US has changed many times over the years, and has different terms of protection for different situations. Since 1978, the general rule in most cases has been that films, books and other works (like plays, music and television programs) are protected by copyright from the time they’re created until 70 years after the death of the author (different rules apply for anonymous works and for work that you were hired to create). Works created by the US government, by the way, are automatically in the public domain, so download that copy of the Warren Commission report at will.
Told you it was complicated, and I’m not done yet. Most (but not all) works published before 1923 are by default in the public domain, thanks to a 1998 law called the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act. (Yes, that Sonny Bono.) Classic films of the 1950s and 1960s are another matter still. Many are in the public domain because for several decades, copyright registration required paperwork and a copyright notice in a film, and you had to periodically re-register for extensions. Miss any of those steps, and your film could lose its protection and end up like George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” (1968) or Francis Ford Coppola’s “Dementia 13” (1963) — free to download and view at will.
Today, that’s not an issue. Current US copyright law is much simpler, no longer requiring you to jump through those hoops. Any work created after 1978 is automatically granted copyright protection with no registration, notice or renewal needed. So, yes, that epic novel manuscript in your drawer is already protected (at least until 70 years after you die, of course).
Better safe than sorry
The internet can be full of information that’s well-meaning but just plain wrong. So just because someone claims a movie, book or other creative work is in the public domain, that doesn’t make it so. Don’t take your chances that they’re correct — do a little research instead.
PublicDomainSherpa.com is a great resource for finding not only lists of freely available works, but also how to discern if something is truly in the public domain. Also check out Copyright.gov, which has many FAQs and explainers, all in a surprisingly easy-to-digest format for a government website.
But, wait, there’s another point that can trip you up. While a film as a whole may be in the public domain, certain elements within that film may not be, like the underlying script (especially if it’s based on a novel) or the music. The copyright for the 1956 teen exploitation film “Rock, Rock, Rock!” has expired, for example, but its soundtrack still features protected Chuck Berry songs. Versions of silent films with modern scores that were added later (such as some versions of F.W. Murnau’s 1922 “Nosferatu“) fall under this exception, as well.
Don’t forget the books
Kindle owners aren’t left out of the public domain fun. Several websites collect copyright-free books in downloadable formats for e-book readers, tablets and PCs. Authorama.com includes classic works like Edwin Abbott’s “Flatland” (an 1884 sci-fi novel about geometric creatures living in a two-dimensional world). Books.google.com houses Google’s scans of all sorts of books, and public domain ones are downloadable. The granddaddy of public domain e-book archives is Project Gutenberg. There you can find public domain books in plain text, EPUB or web browser versions, or even preformatted for the Amazon Kindle.
Dig up some buried treasures
If you’re ready to dig for your own buried public domain treasures, there are many online resources that stand ready to help. A good place to start is Archive.org, which has a massive collection of digitized films, and any public domain work is likely to be found there (along with many works that are still protected, so exercise caution). Cleaned-up versions of public domain films are often available to buy on DVD or Blu-ray if you want them in a convenient format. Here are some sources for finding public domain works:
Browser-based public domain books
Public domain books in a variety of formats
Everything from films and television to music, some of the works in the public domain, some not
Scanned books, including the most notable public domain works
Information on public domain films
Volunteers read public domain books to create free audiobook versions
This story appears in the winter 2017 edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, click here.
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