Charade for Free

5 August, 2005 at 9:30 pm (charade, film, webjunk)

While reading through a Wikipedia entry on Frank Sinatra, trying to clearly establish which came first, his film career or his wide renown as a singer (it seems he began as a singer but didn’t catapult into chanteur status until after he began appearing in movies), I happened upon an anecdote about the film Suddenly, which was reputedly watched by Lee Harvey Oswald just prior to his shooting of President John F. Kennedy. According to a biography of Sinatra, when he learned this, he had all prints of the film pulled from available distribution, and did not renew the copyright, thus allowing the film to fall into the public domain. A wikipedia link to a website that allows free downloads of lapsed public domain films led me to a link to a free download of Charade.

The Criterion Collection edition of Stanley Donen's CHARADEHowever, despite assertions to the contrary, I maintain my belief that Charade cannot actually be in the public domain. Now, I’m not a copyright lawyer, and I may well be wrong about this, but it seems quite clear to me that the various public domain DVD releases of Charade — and there are many — are not standing on firm legal ground, but taking advantage of a loophole that wouldn’t stand up under close scrutiny. Y’see, some prints of Charade were distributed without a notice of copyright. These prints are the ones that have been reproduced freely, as people are saying, “Hey! It didn’t say it was copyrighted on this print! How was I supposed to know?” The fact that it was copyrighted on other prints, and that intellectual property adheres to the content and not just the physical iterations of said content seems to be escaping most of these people. Plus, the fact that Universal Pictures made a remake of the film and re-released Charade on the DVD of said remake seems to indicate that they’re pretty sure they’re the copyright holders.

However, because of this loophole there are those that have thought the reproduction or adaptation of the contents of the intellectual property of Charade were fair game. So not only is there the official Universal remake, but there is also an indie-film adapation of the film. Robert Foreman has written and directed a film called Duplicity, written by Jack Cornish from “a 16th draft of a screenplay based on Charade”. Viewed at Cannes in 2004, it’s gone nowhere since. I’m hoping someone forgets to renew its copyright, so that I can legally download it and watch it for free, as I think that a film based on a screenplay based on a draft of a rewrite of a film based upon a novel based upon a screenplay based upon a short story in Redbook seems like something for which one might not want to pay good money.

Two last things. Firstly, while searching for some definitive answers to the public domain status of Charade, I stumbled upon some newsreel footage from 26 September, 1963 of “Mr. and Mrs. Robert Kennedy, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson and his wife, and the President’s sister Mrs. Sergeant Shriver” attending the sneak preview of Charade at a benefit for the Stay-In-School Fund, an organization of which Mrs. JFK was honorary chair. Charade was released on December 6, 1963, and there was a rush to alter the prints so that the word “assassinated” would be dubbed over in the wake of the murder of President Kennedy. Why aren’t there more conspiracy theories surrounding this? VP Johnson clearly saw the original, pre-dubbed cut!

Still from MK12's video for Guided By Voices' BACK TO THE LAKESecondly, I feel I should point out that Matt Fraction blogged about the free, downloadable public domain feature films aaaaages ago, but I never noticed that Charade was on the list. So, once again it becomes quite clear that I was born one day too early to actually be cool. Curses. However, the new video that Fraction’s animation and design studio produced for Guided By Voices is similar to their past works but a quantum step forward in terms of 3D incorporation and effect. Go watch it. I actually prefer the images with the sound off, but the camera strobe movement of the characters in the film make more sense when you realize that they’re in time with the song. Beautiful little thing, though, and the x-ray glasses effect is wonderful.


  1. Ian Snappish said,

    Do I get a First Post Prize? ;)As I guess you discovered, before 1976, copyright protection had to be explicitly stated on the work, which is why the missing notice was so important. But as you point out, many prints did have the copyright notice on. Which should end the discussion. However, on the Gutenberg site (who have been doing this sort of thing for a while, and have a few lawyers on hand), there’s this curious rule on their copyright HOWTO:Rule 5If a substantial number of copies were printed and distributed in the U.S. prior to March 1, 1989 without a copyright notice, and the work is of entirely American authorship, or was first published in the United States, the work is in the public domain in the U.S. (Note that we cannot clear items printed/published outside of the U.S. under this rule)Annoyingly, there’s no reference to where in copyright law this comes from, but still, I suppose this is where the public domain defence comes from.Failing that, Rule 6 *could* apply if Universal/Donen didn’t renew the copyright in 1991.But again, it’s all pointless, as Universal can reclaim the copyright on the film at any time using the same technique as Republic used with “It’s A Wonderful Life”; the underlying script and score have their own separate copyright (and what with it being a Mancini score, I’m fairly certain that its copyright status up-to-date), and they can be used to bring copyright infringement cases against the firms that distribute the PD versions of Charade.That was my thinking anyway: it’s still not entirely clear, but if Universal ever want to stop the other versions, they could do it fairly easily.(it’s much easier here in the UK where I think its copyright status has never been in doubt)

  2. Benjamin Russell said,

    Jack Cornish has written to me to mention that he, in fact, was the writer of Duplicity and not director Robert Foreman. I have gone back and read the article from which I found out about the film in the first place, and I regret to say that I have misread it. My apologies to Mr. Cornish. I have edited the entry accordingly.He also says that Charade is most definitely in the public domain. I maintain that Universal Pictures is not in the habit of releasing copyright-free motion pictures on digital video disc. And while Duplicity may have been written without need for permission or royalties, and Universal’s lawyers may not have pressed the issue, their re-release of the official version of the film and their renewing of the contract with Criterion probably gives them sufficient legal ground to establish copyright in a courtroom.Remember, I am not, not, not a legal expert of any kind. Furthermore, I am not commenting on what obvious interpretatons of the loophole are legally feasible right now. I am anticipating the results of a verdict that isn’t on any docket anywhere… but could be. And my money’s on Universal.

  3. Ian Snappish said,

    Yes, I should point out that I’m not a legal expert of any kind at all; just someone with an interest in copyright law and Audrey Hepburn, so it’s an irresistible combination. I guess he’s got legal advice, but I’d be more wary of a derivative work than simply distributing the original, seeing as how it’s an adaptation of a copyrighted Peter Stone story to begin with (oh, okay, a screenplay, then a story, and then another one, but the point stands).

  4. Today in Charade | said,

    […] of Charade — but not all! — were distributed without without copyright indicia, and I had previously gone on record that I simply couldn’t believe that Universal would endorse remakes of Charade if it […]

  5. Benjamin Russell said,

    From 2014, but found today: an article on copyright-free films listing Charade as a prominent example. Wikipedia lists Charade as Donen’s most financially successful film… imagine how much more it would have been had the copyright been notated correctly.

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