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Rights Issues and Unreleased or Edited Videos

Savant receives many requests about the unavailability of specific titles on video that are improper for me to attempt to answer. However, I think it might be useful to discuss the legal mysteries why certain movies or, in some cases, parts of movies, have become unavailable to the public.

Seventy years' worth of sound films have been distributed in theaters and television under contracts made between producers, studios, distributors, and star talent. Obviously, when a major studio produced a film it did its best to retain ownership and control of its property, but stars and other creative contributors often had part ownership of the films they appeared in. Sometimes they retained ultimate control of their creative contributions within a film - songs, music, the screenplay. An older film which did not have its copyright renewed might fall into the public domain -- yet not always completely, because its screenplay or its synchronized music score may remain under separate copyright. Like everything legal, the subject just gets more complicated, not less.

When Home Video bloomed around 1979-80, it created work for entertainment lawyers. Here was a new vein of exhibition not covered by the old contracts. Video companies wishing to release films on video and laser first had to renegotiate new agreements among each title's owners, be they two or twenty, individuals or partnerships, moguls or corporations.

Some films presented no problem: obviously those owned completely by a studio, and those whose owners could easily be gathered together to sign a new deal. Home Video turned many an old film into a newfound moneymaker, and for a while rights for even the most obscure titles got a sudden lift in value.

But some films have remained in unreleased on tape, because rights could not be straightened out, or new contracts agreed upon - for any number of reasons. In the industry one most often hears these reasons reported as rumors. In reality, no matter what reaches print, only the parties directly involved really 'know' why any particular legal issue is unresolved. As a rule, it is inappropriate to comment on video titles supposedly tied up by legal rights issues, simply because the truth in such matters is privileged information, and repeating hearsay about someone else's business dealings is bad policy, plain and simple. Savant is a film fan, not a legal authority. I have made it a policy to steer clear of specificlegal matters I am not qualified to discuss.

These rights problems can apply to parts of movies as well as to entire features. Some films have appeared on video with replacement soundtracks, either specific recordings of pop songs, or even entire scores. Licensing agreements for the music originally heard in theaters reportedly could not be secured. The words "Home Video music version" are sometimes used on the boxes. Likewise, a disclaimer on a tape or a cablecast reading 'edited for home video' can refer not only to adult content cut out, but also to material omitted because rights are not secure.

Those fans who find themselves in the situation of wanting to demand that a film be released, or demand that a theatrical cut or soundtrack be restored, I can only respond with an answer from my own experience: in the real world, a movie is ultimately a property, whose owners have the right to restore it or alter it, distribute or withhold it altogether. We thankfully are living in a climate that does indeed place value on the restoration and preservation of films.... but it needs to be remembered that, if there were no business incentive (mostly provided by Home Video) to take such good care of old movies, a lot of movie history would have disappeared by now.

I'm not writing this to discourage discussion of the matter! By all means, write studios requesting they release anything you want to see. They tend to read their mail, even if they rarely answer it. And please write Savant to express your opinion of anything about Home Video, good or bad.

Text © Copyright 1997 Glenn Erickson

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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