Finding Movies in the Public Domain

You've got the projector. You've got your inflatable screen all set up and ready to go. The popcorn's popping. The only thing missing at your outdoor cinema event is the cinema itself. You might think that the hardest thing about selecting a movie is digging through all the options in your digital library. But without the public performance rights, it's unlikely that anything in your repertoire will be available for legal display in a public setting.

We're going to cover the basics on acquiring the public performance rights for movies in a different pot. But first, we wanted to tell you about one of our favorite resources for movies here at Open Air Cinema - the Public Domain. The Public Domain is an archive of movies that don't require any licensing to show them in public. By availing yourself of some these titles, you save your organization the cost and hassle of licensing a movie that is currently under copyright.

What is the Public Domain?

The Public Domain isn't actually a place - it's a designation for intellectual properties which don't have any kind of government, corporate, or private ownership. These are films to which no one has any proprietary claim. That means no one is losing out on money which is rightfully theirs should people choose to pay admission to see you film. In fact, many of these films are considered to be the cultural and intellectual property of the public at large. Thus, there are available for anyone to use freely at any time and in any context they wish.

How Does a Film Enter the Public Domain?

There are a few ways by which a film might enter the Public Domain. A film might be considered public domain if it is published without any kind of copyright notice. Copyright law requires that the officially recognized copyright symbol appear in clear and readable way at the beginning and end of the film. Of course, along with the copyright symbol, you must also include the year of publication and the name of the entity claiming proprietary rights. Many films in the Public Domain were released before copyright law came into existence. Many of them failed to include a copyright notice and some of them didn't add a correct copyright notice. In all of these cases, the film would become public property immediately upon its release. Another way that a film might enter the Public Domain is if the filmmakers fail to register their work with the Library of Congress. Depending on a judge's interpretation, a film must be registered with the Library of Congress either immediately upon release or within the first 28 years of its publication (a registration lasts 28 years before renewal is required). In either case, there are a good number of films and television shows which have failed to meet either of these requirements, and have thus become public property, which you can display without worry on your inflatable screen. There have been many amendments made to this law in recent years and many films which might have lost their registration and licensing continue to be protected. But there are still a great number of films within the Public Domain archives.

Where Do I Find Public Domain Movies?

Now that we have the ability to share files on the Internet, finding movies within the Public Domain is easier than ever. There are a few sites like which will allow to directly download movies without any proprietary claim. If you feel like a movie might fall under Public Domain, but you aren't sure, visit a site like, where site managers can help you find out what's legal to show at your next outdoor movie night and what requires further licensing. Remember, it's important to respect copyright law. If you don't, you will receive cease-and-desist orders and possibly be fined for unlawful use of someone else's work. If your organization doesn't have the budget to properly license a film, don't dismay. There still a surprising number of great Public Domain В films and television shows that you can show on your inflatable screen, from Night of the Living Dead to The Three Stooges and many more!

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