Alfred Hitchcock: Dial © for Copyright, Part 2

by Nick Cooper

American Law

  • Exploding the public domain myth about the early films of the Master of Suspense
  • In the US ONLY, some of Hitchcock’s works were public domain – but no longer
  • Before the DVD era dawned, copyright was restored to all of his early British films
  • Poor quality pirates and bootlegs abound, but all have official restored alternatives

Note: this is one of 100-odd Hitchcock articles coming over the next few months. Any dead links are to those not yet published. Subscribe to the email list to be notified when new ones appear.

Continuing our in-depth investigation into the vagaries of copyright law, especially concerning the films of Alfred Hitchcock. This time we go stateside, where the most confusion reigns. Numerous authors have touched on the subject before, but most of them get it wrong when it comes to the Master. The truth is, none of his films are in the public domain, even in the United states, Let’s find out why…

Alfred Hitchcock Presents poster by Adam Walker aka renduh, 2014

Poster by Adam Walker aka renduh, 2014


In contrast to the United Kingdom – and indeed many other countries – the United States’ approach to copyright was historically very different, as it was a long-standing hold-out from joining the Berne Convention on copyright. By the time Hitchcock started making films, the standard term of protection for them under the Copyright Act of 1909 (the “1909 Act”) was a mere 28 years from the end of the year in which they were formally registered with the United States Copyright Office (USCO). This could then be extended by a further 28 years – giving 56 years in total – but only by being formally renewed with the USCO, which could be done in the year before the expiry was due, or in that year itself . Renewal in the following year was possible, but rare, and would run from the year the previous term expired.

If a film was not registered with the USCO at all, it had no copyright protection in the United States and was automatically deemed to be in the public domain. Thus it could be exploited by anyone who could get their hands on a print. Similarly, if a copyright was not renewed at the end of any registered 28-year term, it would also fall into the public domain.

This regime had profound implications for Hitchcock’s British films, given that none of his 10 silent films were registered, and while 8 of his 19 sound films were, none were renewed after the initial 28-year term. For this reason, by 1968 all 29 of Hitchcock’s British films – up to and including Bon Voyage and Aventure Malgache (both 1944) – were in the US public domain for one reason or another. They could thus be screened or broadcast by anyone with a print, duplicated and sold on film (especially 8mm or 16mm for home viewing), and later sold on Betamax, VHS and finally, LaserDisc.

In contrast, the American studios and production companies were far more conscientious. As far as can be ascertained, all of Hitchcock’s films from Rebecca onwards (except Bon Voyage and Aventure Malgache) were both registered and appropriately renewed with the USCO, including those made in the UK. Before any of these full 56-year terms expired, however, US copyright law changed.

Joan Fontaine in Rebecca (1940, dir. Alfred Hitchcock). All of Hitch's US films, commencing with this one, have always been copyrighted.

Joan Fontaine in Rebecca (1940). All of Hitch’s US films, commencing with this one, have always been copyrighted.

The Copyright Act of 1976 (the “1976 Act”) revised US copyright law wholesale. The works of individual creators[1] – or co-creators – now got protection of life plus 50 years, but “works for hire,” including films, got a term of 75 years from publication. The new terms applied retrospectively to all works that were still protected by their initial or second 28-year term under the 1909 Act, but anything that had fallen into the public domain remained there. This meant that Hitchcock’s American productions were safe until at least 2023, but his British films – including Bon Voyage and Aventure Malgache – remained in the public domain. Under this new regime, all his works would be in the US public domain after the end of 2051.

Berne Convention Implementation Act of 1988

The United States finally joined the Berne Convention on copyright with the Berne Convention Implementation Act of 1988 (the “BCI Act”). Controversially, while the Convention required the United States to recognise and match or extend the copyright protection on non-US works that were still protected in their country of origin – as Hitchcock’s British films undoubtedly were – the BCI Act only did so for works created on or after it became law on 1 March 1989. Hitchcock’s films that were public domain in the United States therefore continued to remain there.

Nita Naldi and Malcolm Keen in The Mountain Eagle (1926, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

Nita Naldi and Malcolm Keen in Hitchcock’s only lost film, The Mountain Eagle (1926)

Uruguay Round Agreements Act (1994)

The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) was first created in 1947 as a means to reduce or eliminate trade barriers between various countries. Between 1986 and 1994 GATT was renegotiated, culminating in the creation of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). The 8th round of negotiations, launched in Punta del Este, Uruguay – and hence known as the “Uruguay Round”[2] – included consideration of intellectual property rights. Having faced much criticism for not applying the 1988 US Act retrospectively, the United States changed its position, restoring the lapsed or never-granted US copyrights on non-US works via the Uruguay Round Agreements Act (the “URA Act”) on 1 January 1996. US works were not affected.

This led to much protest and legal challenge from those who had previously been exploiting the US public domain status of non-US works, but ultimately these objections were overruled. Those who had previously been commercially exploiting such works were defined as “reliance parties,” and were given a limited window in which they could clear existing stock once the foreign rights holder had filed a “Notice of Intent to Enforce” (NIE) the restored US copyright of a particular work. By this stage most of Hitchcock’s British films were owned by either ITV Global or StudioCanal, and both dutifully filed numerous NIEs for them. Somewhat amusingly, this included ITV Global laying claim to The Mountain Eagle (1926/27),[3] a lost film, presumably just on the off-chance that a copy might eventually turn up!

As a result of the URR Act, Hitchcock’s British films that had been languishing in the US public domain acquired a new copyright term of 75 years after release in their country of origin. This meant that they would not start to fall into the public domain again until – theoretically – at least the end of 1998 for Always Tell Your Wife (1923), through to Jamaica Inn (1939) at the end of 2015.

U.S. Supreme Court Takes “39 Steps” Back from the Public Domain

Charles Laughton and Maureen O'Hara in Jamaica Inn (1939, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Hara in Jamaica Inn (1939)

In light of the (generally) posthumous 70-year copyright terms by then being afforded in Europe (as implemented by the 1995 SI in the UK), rights holders in the United States lobbied for an extension of existing protections there. The Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 increased the posthumous 50-year term for individuals to 70 years, and similarly added another 20 years to the protection of works for hire, making 95 years in all. This meant that Hitchcock’s films would not start falling into the US public domain until the end of 2018, ending with Family Plot (1976) at the end of 2071. Based on a 1993 US publication date, Bon Voyage and Aventure Malgache appear to be protected until the end of 2088 – 108 years after Hitchcock’s death!

Here and now

As things currently stand, Hitchcock’s films will start falling into the US public domain at the end of 2018, although as that only applies to the incomplete Always Tell Your Wife, the point is somewhat moot. The end of 2022 will see the lapse of the US copyrights on The Pleasure Garden (1925/27), The Mountain Eagle (!), The Lodger (1926/27), The Ring (1927), and Downhill (1927). At the end of 2023 it will be The Farmer’s Wife (1928), Easy Virtue (1927/28) and Champagne (1928), and so on. In the vast majority of cases the US copyright will lapse first, but for a small number the UK copyright will precede it: Bon Voyage and Aventure Malgache after 2043, Torn Curtain (1966) after 2049, and The Wrong Man (1956) after 2050. Otherwise the British copyrights will expire after the US ones, with the last being Family Plot (1976), some time after the end of 2088. For countries with a 50-year posthumous term for dramatic works (e.g. Canada, Australia, etc.), copyrights will expire 20 years before the current UK terms (i.e. the 1988 Act terms).

Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States

US Public domain or copyrighted? Here’s how to tell: Public Domain Sherpa

[1] Generally copyright commentary talks of “co-authors,” but this is obviously open to misinterpretation, so I prefer the broader “co-creators.”
[2] Some sources erroneously refer to it as the “Uruguay Round Table.”
[3] Different release years are often cited for some of Hitchcock’s silents; the later one is salient here, as that’s the official UK public release and copyright date. For more details, see each film’s individual entry in the Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide.

Alfred Hitchcock: Dial © for Copyright, Part 3

Nick Cooper © 2018. Other works:

Alfred Hitchcock caricature by Hamed Talebany aka hamex, 2007

Alfred Hitchcock caricature by Hamed Talebany aka hamex, 2007

For more detailed specifications of official releases mentioned, check out the ever-useful DVDCompare. This article is regularly updated, so please leave a comment if you have any questions or suggestions.

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