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Video News (more headlines) 06-12-2003

Movie Archivists And Preservationists Urge Congress To Save Orphan Films

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Durham, North Carolina - A diverse group of movie archivists, preservationists, and creators sent a message to Congress today that without reforms in the copyright system, the majority of the nation's historical motion picture heritage faces destruction as the film on which it's printed crumbles away. They expressed their support for a proposal that would allow 'orphan films' - those that are no longer under active copyright management - to enter the public domain so that they can be copied, archived, and preserved.

"The tragedy of our current system is that to protect the 1 or 2% of movies that are still commercially viable, we lock up the remaining 98%, and often let them crumble into dust," said James Boyle, professor of Law at Duke University Law School. "We need a common sense solution to this problem. This Bill is a very moderate compromise. It allows preservationists and archivists to restore and display the 'orphan films' while respecting the rights of the commercial film companies. There are countless experts and enthusiasts ready and willing to preserve our cultural heritage, and make it available to the world over the Internet - they just need the legal OK to do so."

The letter addresses a basic problem. Most moving images captured in the last century exist on a medium that decays in less time than it takes the copyright on them to expire. The overwhelming majority of these films are not being commercially exploited and have been abandoned by their original owners. However, under current law, to restore these and make them available to the public, one needs to hunt down an elusive copyright owner to get permission. This is costly, and often impossible. Since there would never be a commercial benefit from most of these films, they disintegrate without being preserved.

"Orphan films contain fresh and fascinating images of everyday life, culture and industry in America. They are truly our "national home movies." If we're free to preserve these unique and endangered films, our children and grandchildren will have a chance to see the America their ancestors lived in," said Rick Prelinger, President of Prelinger Archives.

Of the tens or hundreds of thousands of movies made before 1950, fully 50% are already irretrievably lost. For films made before 1929, the loss rate is even worse: 80% of films of the 1920's, and 90% of films from the 1910's are gone. The loss is a tragic one. These orphan films paint a fascinating and varied picture of life in America in the 20th century: there are documentaries, newsreels, independent productions, glimpses of the daily life of immigrant communities and racial or ethnic minorities, and commercial works whose owners have abandoned or forgotten them.

"These films make up the majority of our film heritage, and they are literally disintegrating because it is too dangerous for archivists to take the risk that a copyright owner will suddenly appear and object to them being restored and made available to the public." said Professor Boyle. "We need to switch the system around so that we aren't locking up 98% of our cultural history, to benefit 2% of it. Make sure those who wish to maintain their copyrights are fully protected, but allow the rest of the material to enter the public domain." 

The letter expressed support for new legislation to allow old movies to enter the public domain so they could be copied, preserved and made available to the world without the threat of liability. As described at http://eldred.cc, the proposal would require American copyright owners to pay a very low fee (for example, $1) fifty years after a copyrighted work was published. If the owner pays the fee, the copyright will continue for whatever duration Congress sets. If not, it would enter the public domain.

"We have an opportunity here to preserve an endangered resource without having to dedicate a national landmark, declare a forest off-limits to developers, or spend taxpayer dollars cleaning up a toxic waste site. We need do very little, in fact, to develop the kind of intellectual property environment in which orphan films can survive and reach an audience; this straightforward bill, in fact, accomplishes that goal very neatly," said Snowden Becker, at the J. Paul Getty Museum and Chairwoman of the Small Gauge and Amateur Film Interest Group of the Association of Moving Image Archivists. "Continuing to lock up orphan media like home movies and amateur films from the 1930s in the same copyright box with last summer's action-adventure blockbuster is senseless, and it profits no one. I look forward to a time when copyright concerns will no longer prevent me or my colleagues from doing all we can to preserve and promote our most endangered cultural heritage resource"

The other signatories are: Howard Besser (director, Moving Image Archive and Preservation Program, New York University, Tisch School of the Arts, Cinema Studies Department), Karen Gracy (School of Library and Information Science, University of Pittsburgh), Brian Graney (New Mexico State Records Center and Archives and Co-Chair, Regional Audio-Visual Archives Interest Group of the Association of Moving Image Archivists), Davis Guggenheim (Director), Lynne Kirste (Academy Film Archive), Michele Kribs (Film Preservationist, Oregon Historical Society), Thomas D. Moritz (Harold J. Boeschenstein Director, Library Services American Museum of Natural History), Stephen Parr (Director, San Francisco Media Archive), Elizabeth Shue (Actor), Dan Streible (Associate Professor of Film Studies & Orphan Film Symposium Director, University of South Carolina, and Chair, Moving Picture Access and Archive Policy Committee, Society for Cinema and Media Studies), Dwight Swanson (Archivist, Northeast Historic Film). Institutions are noted for identification purposes only.

"There is broad support for protecting the public domain as the almost 12,000 signatures on the Reclaim the Public Domain Petition prove," said Lauren Gelman, an attorney who is managing the campaign to pass legislation like the Bill this letter supports. "Copyright cannot be just about protecting Mickey. It needs to also be about protecting our cultural heritage."

The letter and more information on the proposed legislation is available at: http://eldred.cc/

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