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Ernest Miller Ernest Miller pursues research and writing on cyberlaw, intellectual property, and First Amendment issues. Mr. Miller attended the U.S. Naval Academy before attending Yale Law School, where he was president and co-founder of the Law and Technology Society, and founded the technology law and policy news site LawMeme. He is a fellow of the Information Society Project at Yale Law School. Ernest Miller's blog postings can also be found @

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December 16, 2004

Who'd Buy the Public Domain for a Dollar?

Posted by Ernest Miller

Apparently a lot of bargain shoppers, according to USA Today (Hot off the shelf: DVDs for a dollar):

According to Videoscan, the national point-of-sale tracking service, last week, 19 of the 50 top-selling DVDs were dollar DVDs from Genius Products, a leading supplier of budget videos. Compilation discs of Popeye cartoons and The Lucy Show episodes came in at No. 17 and No. 18, right below the Star Wars Trilogy and Dawn of the Dead [I suppose they mean the recent remake, not the original, which is also in the public domain].
And trip on this:
"We get letters all the time from people, thanking us for making this great stuff available at such a low price," says Howard Balaban of Genius Products. "It's mind-boggling."
Gosh, I wonder if there would be a market to have these works delivered straight to your TiVo via a BitTorrent hybrid?
Most dollar-DVD titles are in the public domain, which means the copyright has expired and has not been renewed. That makes them cheap to put on DVD.

The dollar-DVD market arrives after a steady decline in DVD prices across the board. Hot new theatrical releases routinely sell for less than $15 their first week of release, about half what they were going for when the format was launched in 1997. The drop-in prices for older films is even more pronounced: Wal-Mart has huge "dump bins" in its high-traffic aisles filled with DVDs selling for $5.88.

Given the cost of printing the box, stamping the DVD and shipping them all over the US, is there really that much of a price difference between public domain and the older films in the "dump bins"? Searching through those bins for something you are interested in takes time. How much would people pay to have them readily available at the press of a button on the remote?

Comments (5) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Culture


1. Nipper on December 16, 2004 08:42 PM writes...

More and more public domain movies are showing up on the Internet for download. For instance, see's selection of public domain "Feature Films" at

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2. Joe Gratz on December 17, 2004 02:21 AM writes...

I picked up a bunch of these at Target the other week, and they're not bad -- it's just a cardboard box and a disc, nothing else, but the video quality is mostly acceptable and the programming is great. I got the Bob Hope - Bing Crosby road pic Road to Bali, a disc of old Colgate Comedy Hour episodes with Abbott and Costello, and a disc of George Burns and Gracie Allen material for $1 each.

I knew something was up when the music over the opening titles of the Colgate Comedy Hour episodes was removed and redubbed with some rather poor FM-synth sounding chords. I'm guessing the script wasn't renewed and the video itself was never copyrighted, but some kind of Colgate jingle or theme music was registered and timely renewed, so they couldn't use it.

FYI, these are all DVD-5s, no CSS, no Macrovision. (Those few pennies for CSS and Macrovision licensing would probably have eaten the profit margin on these.)

Imagine what other delights might be available on DVD if we'd kept copyright formalities.

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3. R. N. D. on December 19, 2004 03:20 PM writes...

It's the original Night of the Living Dead that is in the public domain, not Dawn of the Dead.

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4. akb on December 20, 2004 01:45 PM writes...

I hope people who have bought these DVDs realize that they can upload them to so that others can enjoy them.

Maybe now that the MPAA is starting to sue, people sharing movies can turn their efforts to ripping public domain movies, for good instead of evil, if you will.

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5. phil on December 20, 2004 08:21 PM writes...

Sort of like a Movie Liberation Front, only without the firebombing and hate of the ALF.

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