Why Do Some DVD’s Only Cost a Dollar?

Have you ever noticed the wide range of prices for DVD’s?  The ones near the checkout stands at many discount stores sell for as little as $1.00, whereas others cost many times that amount.  This discrepancy isn’t just a question of supply and demand; many of the dollar DVD’s contain works that have entered the public domain and are no longer copyrighted.  As long as a work holds a copyright, anyone who wishes to make copies must obtain permission from the copyright owner, which usually takes the form of a license or royalty arrangement. 

Works in the public domain can be freely copied by anyone without having to pay for such a right.      The source of copyright in the United States is found in Article 1, Section 8 of our Constitution.    One of the powers given to Congress is “[t]o promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.” [Emphasis added]  In other words, Congress encourages creativity by giving creative people control over the copying and distribution of their creations for a certain period of time, after which that creation becomes property of the people of the United States. 

The advent of motion pictures in the late 19th Century added a new medium to be copyrighted.  Over the years, copyright law has been amended to lengthen the period of time that a work can be copyrighted.     

The most recent such amendment occurred in 1998 with the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA), named after the late recording artist turned congressman.  This 20-year extension was enacted because many early “talking pictures” that still had considerable market value were coming toward the end of their copyright term.  Most notable were some of the early Disney cartoons, such as the Mickey Mouse classic “Steamboat Willie.”  Instead of this cartoon entering the public domain in 2003, the CTEA gave the copyright owner exclusive rights until 2023.     

So how does the CTEA affect movies in general?  The only hard and fast rule is that any work created before January 1, 1923, to include the early silent film classics from that era, is now in the public domain.  But as you’ve probably noticed, not every dollar DVD is a silent film.  So how did these later films lose their copyright?  Until the law was changed in 1978, published works were awarded a 28-year copyright which could be renewed for another 28-year term. 

The copyright on some motion pictures was not renewed, so these works entered the public domain earlier than expected.  Perhaps the most famous of these later films in the public domain is the Christmas classic “It’s a Wonderful Life,” but there are plenty of other films, and even television shows, published between the years 1923 and 1963 that fall into this category.  A third category is films produced by the United States government, which have never been copyrightable.     

Motion pictures aren’t the only works that are subject to copyright.  Any creative expression that is fixed in a tangible medium is copyrightable, to include books (fiction and non-fiction), poetry, music (sheet music and sound recordings), artwork, websites and a wide variety of other works.  Since 1978, copyright is created simultaneously with the creation of the work, but it’s still a good idea to register your artistic work with the U.S. Copyright Office, because a copyright infringement lawsuit can’t be filed in federal court unless the work is registered.  This can sometimes be done after the infringement takes place, but it’s safest to have your copyright registration in hand as soon after creating the work as possible.    

So the next time you’re shopping for DVD’s, bear in mind that the great buy you find in the discount bin may mean the content of the DVD is no longer protected by copyright.

 Contributed by Carl Mueller, CLAS:

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