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Bootlegging for beginners

I hope the initiated will not mind a little explanation here. The market for movies, especially on DVD in its heyday, had a niche for films that were put on the market very cheaply and when examined usually supplied very poor copies. The distributors of these products claimed that the films were in the ‘public domain’. Somehow or other the original producers had failed to renew the copyright after the film’s first twenty eight years and thus circulation of it opened up to anybody who could find something to copy. This often involved making copies from old VHS copies or 16mm prints kept in some film exchange. Those 16mm prints in particular were often battered and worn to near unviewability. Never mind the packaging certainly didn’t need to make that clear and the price, often a mere few dollars was incredibly low. You could find these articles at street stalls and other places where second hand goods were sold. Lawsons in Pitt Street Sydney often carried them. It was there for instance that I located, in terrible copies, the two Dr Christian movies made by Bernard Vorhaus at RKO in the late 30s.

It seems harmless enough, especially for the collector who is prepared to take anything if its all that’s on offer. However those same businesses who traffic in this material, I’m still tempted to call them bootleggers, also offer their stuff to TV stations and stations, particularly those with miniscule budgets often accept. I recall for instance SBS screening several films produced by the American independent Walter Wanger. The copies were terrible and clearly had been supplied by traffickers in sub-optimal material. That same material was used for the many cheap DVD copies of such movies as Scarlet Street and Algiers which abounded in the DVD stores for awhile.

The latest examples of a poverty-stricken TV station succumbing to the temptation to acquire cheap ‘public domain’ movies were regrettably the two movies I recommended in Film Alert Number 8 2012 which were screening on Sydney’s ‘community’ TV station. The films were 7th Cavalry (Joseph H Lewis, 1956) and China 9, Liberty 37 (Monte Hellman (1978. The copyright holder of the former was a company owned by producer Harry Joe Brown and star Randolph Scott, the Producers and Actors Corporation. The owner of the latter was some mysterious European entity. The former was screened in a washed out barely visible colour version, the latter was shown full frame in a version almost completely devoid of any colour at all. Even the bootlegged letter-boxed copy I bought years ago from a local source was better than that.

In considering these matters I asked a friend with some knowledge of these matters to cast an eye over the sentences above. He responded by saying it was all accurate. The additional advice he gave indicates that, even more curiously and somewhat ironically given my categorising of them as rarities, many of these titles in the public domain are available for free viewing via the Internet, here:
http://archive.org/details/movies. Further advice is that "for a nice list" go here:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_films_in_the_public_domain_in_the_United_States. Then there is this site:
http://tech.blorge.com/Structure:%20/2010/08/11/top-40-best-free-legal-movies-you-can-download-right-now/

So one might ask why a TV station would broadcast something people can access easily, perhaps in better copies, online....(and even copy if they want)....

So, for any TV station that does get involved in trafficking this material, I have a suggestion. If the station can only screen movies acquired from bootleggers and traffickers in rubbish for a pittance it would in my view be better to save the pittance and not encourage the spivs of the industry in their devious ways. (23 April, 2012)