Clark Gable's movie debut just entered the public domain. But partly thanks to onerous US copyright restrictions, you'll never watch it.
Most A-list movie careers have inauspicious beginnings, and long before he was the “King of Hollywood,” Clark Gable made ends meet working as an “extra” in silent movies.
The first of those silent films, White Man, entered the public domain this week. Unfortunately for cinema history buffs, you’ll never be able to watch it.
On New Year’s Day, United States copyrights from the year 1924 expired, bringing thousands of 95-year-old books, movies, and musical compositions into the public domain.
Nearly a century after their initial release, culturally-significant works like When We Were Very Young by A.A. Milne – the first book to feature Winnie the Pooh – can now be shared freely with new generations.
But for White Man and thousands of other works like it, this liberation came far too late.
Like the majority of early American films, White Man is probably lost forever. According to a Library of Congress study, 75% of silent films no longer exist, constituting an “alarming and irretrievable loss to our nation’s cultural record.”
Almost no one alive today will ever have the chance to watch Clark Gable’s film debut. That’s partly Hollywood’s fault. A series of 1930s fires torched thousands of silent film reels, while studios either inexplicably destroyed their archived films on purpose or failed to properly preserve the copies they kept.
But for tens of thousands of other works that entered the public domain long after they’ve vanished forever, there’s another culprit: Congress.
While Congress has a constitutional duty to protect copyright holders, legislators have expanded intellectual property restrictions to unreasonable levels.
Up until 1978, copyrights lasted just 28 years, and holders could renew them once for a maximum copyright term of 56 years. Beginning in 1979, Congress awarded copyright holders 75 years of protection. (Imagine: We could be mining 1963’s cultural treasure-trove today rather than bemoaning the loss of silent films from 1924.)
By the government’s own admission, just 2% of copyrights between 55 and 75 years old retain any commercial value. That number is likely lower for works between 76 and 95 years old, yet in 1998, federal legislators expanded the copyright again to the present 95-year term.
Because so few copyrighted works have any commercial value, many of them fade from existence long before they escape from their 95-year purgatory. But just because they have no commercial value doesn’t mean they’re culturally vacuous too.
It’s A Wonderful Life was a box-office flop in 1947, but when it entered the public domain in 1975 after its initial 28-year copyright expired, it quickly became a Christmas season staple on TV networks – and it remains one to this day.
Would softer copyright protections have afforded us the opportunity to watch Clark Gable grace the silver screen for the first time as “Lady Andrea’s Brother” in White Man? Probably not.
But you can bet Warner Music’s final royalty check from its infamous “Happy Birthday” copyright that this intellectual property regime that favors special interests has done more to rob Americans of underappreciated cultural achievements than it has to protect the artists that created them.
This article was edited by Sam Bourgi.
Last modified: January 2, 2020 7:28 PM UTC