New Year, Old Movies
In many ways, copyright laws meant to protect artistic works as part of our cultural heritage wound up contributing to the lack of proper preservation of many early films. Some Hollywood studios, most notably Disney, had the foresight, means, and good fortune to be able to preserve and restore their early works. As the company’s power grew through the 1970’s, it was able to pressure congress to continuously extend the length of copyright as to cover their most notable and heavily monetized character, Mickey Mouse, hence, the 1998 Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act became colloquially known as the Mickey Mouse Law. In order to protect corporations like Disney, copyright laws were written to cover a period of time longer than the lifespan of a human…or a film.
Films made on silver nitrate in the 1910’s and 1920’s were particularly susceptible to degradation because of the volatile composition of the plastic, to the point where the films would spontaneously combust. Fox lost its entire vault in 1937, destroying most of its pre-1933 collection.
The Library of Congress estimates that more than 80% of American silent-era films have been lost, and this estimate is based on feature films. There is no telling how many educational, documentary, anthropological, or home movies existed, but we do know that few remain. These orphan works that did not go through a structured chain of copyright most conducive to corporations like Disney were left to ruin.
Much has been lost to disintegration, decay, and lack of preservation, still, many remarkable moving images from the early twentieth century have stood the test of time long enough to make it to the National Film Registry. Since 1988 the National Film Registry, a program under the Library of Congress, has preserved films appraised to be “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant”. Preserved films are copied onto modern, enduring formats, stored at cold temperature at low relative humidity, and made accessible to the public through current media.
In celebration of Public Domain Day, this digital exhibit highlights a handful of films in the registry that are coming out of copyright and into the public domain by January 1, 2019. These classics from the silent era through 1923 are now easily accessible on YouTube, and are held within the University of Oregon Libraries.