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>Would anyone have any idea of how we could go about formally >establishing this?  The former copyright holders have no

Your best bet is to contact the US Copyright Office (http://www.loc.gov/copyright/) or a lawyer who specializes in this.  The Copyright Office will do searches but their hourly rate may be higher than a lawyer's.

How old is the film and why do you think it might be public domain?  One problem with proving public domain is that a work might still be under copyright but now owned by somebody who's completely unaware of this (due to corporate buy-outs, estate transfers and the like), not to mention the recent term extensions that can keep a work under copyright for up to 95 years.  There are reference books that list public domain films which may or may not be acceptable proof to the archive since they're unofficial (and probably won't do you any good if you get sued by somebody claiming to hold the copyright).

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