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What Are Public Domain Movies?

Tara Barnett
Tara Barnett

Public domain movies are movies that are owned by no one and thus belong to everyone. Whether or not a film is in the public domain depends on a number of factors including location, as a movie can be in the public domain in one country but not another. In order for there to even be a concept of public domain movies, an area must first recognize intellectual property claims of this type. The category of public domain movies is different than that of open source movies or other types of freely released movies, as the creator still often holds some rights over the film in these cases. Usually, public domain movies can be incorporated into other films or even sold as new releases under certain conditions.

Most public domain movies were protected by copyright at some point but have since lapsed into the public domain. This means that many movies in this category are very old and thus are sometimes called classics. It is important to note that not all classic movies are in the public domain, and age is not the sole factor playing into when a movie becomes publicly available. Another way a movie can be considered part of the public domain is if it was made by a special party, such as a governmental organization, although this typically only applies within a country.

Woman posing
Woman posing

It is very difficult to determine whether or not all rights over a film have expired because movies make use of so many different elements. Public domain movies must be entirely within the public domain in all elements, including the music, cinematography, and even the characters used. It is possible for certain parts of a film to enter the public domain without the entire film doing so, but this makes legal use of the film by others very complicated.

When a film is in the public domain, it can be used in a variety of ways. In many cases, it can be reprinted or remade, and it can also be recut. Some classic films of this type are available for free online, and copies can be made without breaking any laws. When a person chooses to release this type of film, he or she is subject to a number of additional regulations, and typically cannot copyright the film. It may be possible to copyright a derivative work, but copyrighting the original is usually not permitted.

There are, in addition to films in the public domain, a number of similar films that share characteristics with this category. Certain artists choose to release movies that are available free to the public and may be copied, altered, or otherwise used in any way by any person. The difference between these two categories is that the artist retains ownership of the piece and can place certain restrictions on its use. For example, many artists simply state that the piece cannot be used to make money by other people, which means it is not truly in the public domain.

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