Are Silent Films Still Protected by Copyright?

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Are Silent Films Still Protected by Copyright?

Film enthusiasts may be familiar with the silent film Safety Last!  Starring Harold Lloyd, this film debuted in 1923.  Even those who are not familiar with the movie may recognize the iconic scene where Lloyd is dangling from the hands of a giant clock. Cupecoy Home Fashion Inc. produces a 12” metal clock with a man dangling from the minute hand.  This clock drew the ire of Harold Lloyd Entertainment, who filed a copyright infringement lawsuit on March 11, 2014.

Harold Lloyd Entertainment alleged the clock was a direct appropriation of the iconic clock scene.  It also highlighted that it had previously licensed the rights to create a derivative version of the clock scene before.  The movie Back to the Future obtained permission to film the scene of Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) hanging from the clock tower towards the end of the movie.  Most recently, Harold Lloyd Entertainment granted a license to Martin Scorsese to create a similar scene in the movie Hugo.  In fact, posters for the movie featured this scene.

It may seem like a movie 1923 is too old to still be protected by copyright.  However, it is the edge of copyright protection.  If it debuted in 1922, it would be in the public domain.  1923 is the first year where the 95 year term of copyright protection began as per the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  Therefore Safety Last! is protected until 2018.

Even though Cupecoy makes clocks, copyright protection still applies.  Unlike patent law, copyright law does not protect physical objects but expressions.  Thus Harold Lloyd Entertainment can sue not only movies with other clock scenes, but any media with a similar scene or even products with similar expression.  Harold Lloyd Entertainment claims it tried to settle this dispute outside of court but also claims Cupecoy would not respond to its efforts to settle.