CYA: A Cautionary Tale on Copyright from Night of the Living Dead
While it’s not exactly a course in horror academia, The Last Drive-In with Joe Bob Briggs is chock full of movie trivia. Consider my surprise when, as a writer, I learned a valuable lesson on creative work preservation during the season four premiere. It was here that Joe Bob delivered a lengthy opening monologue on copyright that served as an outright warning to artists everywhere. Thus, we present to you a blog post on how not to get your work stolen. Read on to find out how Night of the Living Dead accidentally made its way into the public domain and how you can CYA.
CYA: cover your… bum
Night of the Living Dead was a 1968 independent horror film written by George Romero and John Russo. The movie, a “midnight horror,” was one of the first groundbreaking zombie movies produced, but does not actually reference the word zombie within it. Instead, undead, cannabalistic “ghouls” set out to terrorize people trapped in a rural farmhouse. Romero’s zombies were the first to rise from the dead, influencing zombie culture for ages to come. Due to budgetary constraints at the time, Night of the Living Dead was filmed in black and white. It lends a documentary-like feel to the film. It had all the trappings of originality. It still does.
Yet, there’s something scarier about NotLD than its ghouls: it’s how it accidentally found itself in the public domain.
The original copyright act began in 1909 and stated something to the effect of… if you want to hold a copyright, you need to include a copyright statement on your original work. When NotLD was first created, it’s original title (we’ll call it a working title) was Night of the Flesh Eaters. The production team discovered that another film existed that was also called Night of the Flesh Eaters, so they changed it to NotLD.
Following so far?
Now, the Walter Reed Foundation was NotLD’s distributor. When the Walter Reed Foundation changed out the title screen from Flesh Eaters to Living Dead, they accidentally removed the copyright statement and never put it back in the movie.
Upon film release, the film went two places: theaters and public domain. What Romero and company never saw were royalties and money from ticket sales. It didn’t stop them from making bank from its sequels.
Feel better, friends. The copyright formalities of 1909 no longer hold under the newer copyright laws of the late 1970s. Want to CYA? Check out articles such as this to be sure your copyright approach is on point.
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