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Public Domain Films

The majority of the moving image materials in the Library of Congress collections are protected by copyright and as such are not available for duplication. Researchers are welcome to view copyrighted films at the Library to identify scenes of interest, but the copyright owner is usually the appropriate source for obtaining copies (see Archival/Stock Footage and Purchasing Moving Image Material).

Questions about the copyright status of film and television works should be addressed to the U.S. Copyright Office. The website has a wealth of information concerning copyright, including a comprehensive list of frequently asked questions, a complete collection of their publications, and registration forms. There is also an online database of registrations and renewals since 1978. Earlier records are in card files in the copyright office. The website describes how to access this information.

For information regarding copyright searches, contact:
U.S. Copyright Office
Reference and Bibliography Section - LM451 Library of Congress
Washington, DC 20559-6000
Phone: (202) 707-6850
Fax: (202) 252-3485

Sources for Public Domain Footage

National Archives and Records Administration
Motion Picture, Sound and Video Unit

NARA has an extensive collection of films created for and produced by the U.S. government that are in the public domain, including military films, educational and documentary films (1915-1976). NARA also has gift materials from private sources, such as Universal Newsreel releases and outtakes (1929-67). You can search some of their holdings using the ARC online catalog. For further information, contact:

National Archives and Records Administration
Special Media Archives
Motion Picture, Sound, and Video Unit 8601
Adelphi Road College Park, MD 20740
Phone: 301-837-3520
Fax: 301-837-3620

Internet Moving Image Archive

Provides near-unrestricted access to digitized collections of moving images. The largest collection is comprised of over 1,200 ephemeral (advertising, educational, industrial, and amateur) films made from 1927 through the present. Broadcast quality copies can be purchased through Getty Images.

Reference Books

There are books that purport to list films in the public domain, but they should be used only as a preliminary source of information. The Film Superlist: Motion Pictures in the U.S. Public Domain and Motion Picture Copyrights & Renewals 1950-1959 (bibliographic citations below) expand upon Library of Congress publications of the Catalog of Copyright Entries by providing renewal information. However, even for films where no renewal was found, you will need to check further. Be sure to read the introductory matter when using either publication.

Film Superlist: Motion Pictures in the U.S. Public Domain. Created by Walter E. Hurst; updated edition by D. Richard Baer. Hollywood, Calif.: Hollywood Film Archive, 1992-1994. (Three volumes to date, covering 50,000 films from the years 1894-1939, 1940-49, and 1950-59.)

Motion Picture Copyrights & Renewals 1950-1959 by David Pierce. Laurel, MD: Milestone, 1989.

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  April 15, 2009
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