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Welcoming Two “New” Films to the Public Domain

Yesterday was a pretty momentous day in America, and not just because so many of us got a head start on breaking New Year’s resolutions. It also was a significant milestone in the history of intellectual property rights for a variety of expressive works, including motion pictures.

Put simply, motion pictures with renewed copyrights published between January 1 and December 31, 1923, were initially slated to enter the United States public domain at the beginning of 1999 at the end of their 75 year term of copyright protection. However, in 1998 Congress passed the Copyright Term Extension Act, which extended the protection for another 20 years to a total of 95 years. That extended term expired on January 1, 2019, and from here, films registered in 1924 will enter the public domain on January 1, 2020, those from 1925 in 2021, and so on.

We have well over a hundred films in our collection that were released in 1923, and while all of them are now in the public domain, that does not mean we can make all of them available online or that a patron can purchase a copy from us. That is because we also have to take collections restrictions into consideration. There are two broad categories:

  • 1923 films in unrestricted collections. These are titles that we can make available however we choose because they’re now in the public domain and are not covered by a collections restriction.
  • 1923 films in restricted collections. Back in the 1960s and 1970s the Library signed several agreements to acquire nitrate film from Hollywood studios such as Columbia, Warner Bros., Universal, and Paramount. These agreements allow us to make preservation copies and provide public access for viewing in the Library’s Moving Image Research Center, but we must seek the donor’s permission for other uses like online presentation or DVD release. So even if a title in one of these restricted collections is in the public domain, the Library of Congress specifically is limited in how widely we can make it available.

In anticipation of today, we surveyed our holdings to find titles that were a) new to the public domain and b) not covered by a collection restriction. The results were, well, a little underwhelming, but we are nevertheless pleased to debut The Enemies of Women (Cosmopolitan Productions) and Daytime Wives (R-C Pictures Corporation) as digital restorations-in-process.

The Enemies of Women (Cosmopolitan Prod., 1923)

The Enemies of Women stars Lionel Barrymore, channeling his brother John, as a dashing Russian prince proficient at shirtless dueling. It’s a passably entertaining film and did well at the box office, but our source material, a nitrate print in the AFI/Marion Davies Collection, is missing reels 3 and 9 of 11, plus suffers from some deterioration in reels 4, 5, and 8. We’re still in the process of researching the film in order to “complete” it. For example, we found a two-page summary in the copyright description collection, we’ve looked for more information in the invaluable Media History Digital Library, and we’ve contacted the Margaret Herrick Library about three production stills they have and additional stills are held by the Museum of Modern Art. We’ll use our research to create new intertitles that bridge any gaps in the narrative.

Daytime Wives (R-C Pictures Corp., 1923)

Daytime Wives is also incomplete, missing scenes from the last reel. Our source material is a nitrate print in the AFI/National Film and Sound Archive-Australia Collection. Only the most deeply knowledgeable of film aficionados will recognize any of the film’s stars—Derelys Perdue, Wyndham Standing, and Grace Darmond—but it’s a modestly entertaining (if well-worn) tale of a hard-working businessman, his frivolous spouse, and his loyal secretary/daytime wife with all the complications one might expect. We’ve found the scenario from which the film was adapted that should help round out any missing narrative.

Once we’ve finished digitally restoring these films, I’ll post the files along with a more detailed description of the work that went into resurrecting them from obscurity.  We’re also keeping an eye out for the other 1923 titles as well as those from 1924 and beyond.

The Enemies of Women (Cosmopolitan Productions, 1923)

Daytime Wives (R-C Pictures Corporation, 1923)

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