Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Another rights question

I was somewhat surprised to see that TCM doesn't list any of the Laurel and Hardy shorts they showed yesterday as being available for purchase. At least, you can't buy them at the TCM Shop. They've all been put on DVD, I think, and while those DVDs are available at Amazon, the prices suggest that these are DVDs which are now out-of-print.

The shorts that aired yesterday all (I think; I didn't watch all of them) had the MGM logo at the beginning. Of course it wasn't uncommon for a smaller production to produce motion pictures and then have those films distributed by one of the big studios; William Randolph Hearst's Cosmopolitan Pictures distributed through various studios over the years.

If MGM had ended up with the rights back in the 1920s, as a result of having distributed the films, then those shorts would have ended up in the library that Ted Turner acquired when he bought MGM back in the 1980s, and which became a substantial part of the "Turner Library" that is now one of the many parts of the Time/Warner empire. Surely in that case the Laurel and Hardy shorts would have seen some sort of more recent release that TCM would be plugging every time they plug their TCM Shop. So who exactly does own all the Hal Roach pictures?

Unfortunately, somebody's going to be owning them for decades to come. Back in the day, the copyright would have been 75 years, which implies that the Laurel and Hardy shorts would have entered the public domain several years back. But that also would have meant that Steamboat Willie would have made it into the public domain, and the bastards at Disney couldn't let that happen. If memory serves, Disney bought enough members of Congress to get the copyright term changed to 120 years, which means that Steamboat Willie will be under copyright until 2048, or longer should Disney pay off Congress again in 35 years' time. As for the rest of the silent movies, you can do the math on when they'll finally make it into the public domain. (Mickey Mouse himself would remain a trademark as long as Disney use him, which is somewhat less objectionable.)

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