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What Is Public Domain TV?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 16, 2024
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Public domain TV refers to television shows, commercials, and similar footage that was broadcast on television and is no longer protected by copyright ownership. This can include television shows and episodes that were once owned under copyright law, but which are now part of the public domain, as well as broadcasts or footage that were released from copyright ownership. Identifying exactly what shows and episodes are within the public domain can be somewhat difficult, and care should be taken by anyone attempting to use such shows to ensure adherence to copyright ownership. Public domain TV programs can otherwise be used freely by anyone with a copy.

Much like other works of artistic creation, television programs are protected under copyright law at the moment they are created. The copyright owner for a TV show or commercial is typically the company producing the program, though the person creating a show may potentially be the copyright owner. Like any other copyright work, however, TV shows are protected by copyright law for a limited amount of time, at which point the copyright expires or must be renewed. Those programs that have not had their copyrights renewed or which have otherwise expired become public domain TV.

Public domain refers to works of art or artistic creations that are no longer protected under copyright ownership. Even though television is relatively new among creative mediums, some older programs and shows have begun to have their copyrights expire. Though copyright owners have made efforts in many instances to retain copyright ownership over a show, many of these older shows and commercials have subsequently become public domain TV. Public domain TV can be used freely by anyone, even for commercial purposes, and are not strictly owned by any particular company or person.

Obtaining copies of public domain TV programs is not necessarily easy, however, as any hard copies of such shows are still the property of those companies or individuals who own them. Since they are part of the public domain, a person who owns a copy of an original broadcast reel for a show can make copies of that broadcast and then sell those copies. It is also important to note that some episodes of a particular show may have become part of the public domain, while other episodes have not. This means that anyone interested in using a public domain TV show should ensure that any particular episodes of that show being used are no longer protected under copyright. Some shows with episodes that are now public domain TV include The Lone Ranger, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and The Beverly Hillbillies.

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Discussion Comments

By Mor — On Jul 01, 2012

@Iluviaporos - Oh, I don't know, those "fan fictions" and things are usually not very good quality and have a limited audience. But, for example the books that were written called things like "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" were building a quality product onto an existing franchise.

I can see someone doing something similar with, say, The Dick Van Dyke show, inserting cartoons or something to make it completely different as a joke. If you tried to do that to a show that wasn't public domain you might get in trouble legally, and you wouldn't be able to make any money from it. But anyone could sell something like that now because those shows are free to use.

By lluviaporos — On Jun 30, 2012

@pastanaga - Well, even when people aren't strictly allowed to use characters or scenes from a particular show, they will get around it. There are plenty of tributes online that have been made with sections of particular shows. Some of them are even good. If anything they provide more advertising for the companies that make the shows, so I think they mostly leave them alone since they aren't making any money on it.

And there are the people who write fan fiction, which is based off TV shows. Again, not strictly legal, but it doesn't get touched because it's actually really good advertising.

It's actually pretty amazing how many different ways there are to circumvent copyright in order to work with a show. As long as you aren't making money off it, it's generally not considered an issue.

I don't think it's going to make all that much difference when more shows become public domain.

By pastanaga — On Jun 29, 2012

It's amazing to me that there are real TV shows out there that are just up for grabs in terms of copyright. I mean, I've been brought up to respect copyright completely which is a good attitude to have, particularly when you're doing work online. People seem to think just because a TV show can be uploaded to YouTube that it's moral and legal to do so, but it really isn't and if nothing else, you can get in trouble for doing it.

But there are shows out there, famous shows like The Beverly Hillbillies, which you can just chop up and change however you want and it's completely legal to do so. I think it's going to get more and more interesting as people are allowed to do that.

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