Lost Copyrights Fuel Spate of Series DVDs

Mar 8, 2004  •  Post A Comment

It is no secret that sales of television shows on DVD-including such titles as “The Sopranos” and “24”-has become a big business and a major contributor to the bottom line for many producers. The Video Software Dealers Association reports that TV DVD sales exceeded $1.5 billion last year.

What is less well known is that a small but growing number of those titles are classic TV shows on which not a penny of royalties is being paid to the creators or original distributors. Instead, these shows have fallen into the public domain and are now available as a profit center for anyone who wants to package, promote and sell them.

Major Network Shows

Some of the shows have long since been written off by producers who did not foresee the growing value of home video for TV titles. In other cases, the producers simply waited too long to renew their copyrights. That includes major network fare from the 1960s such as “Bonanza,” “The Lucy Show,” “The Rifleman” and “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

Many shows that are still bringing in TV syndication revenue are now also available on DVD from companies such as GoodTimes Entertainment in New York, Illinois-based Falcon Picture Group, Montreal-based Madacy Entertainment Group, Diamond Entertainment Corp. of Walnut, Calif., and BCI Eclipse, based in Newbury Park, Calif., which is headed by Ed Goetz, former U.S. head of TV direct mass marketer K-Tel.

Even TV Guide, a division of Gemstar, has gotten in on the action. The company announced in January an agreement with Falcon Picture Group to create TV Guide-branded DVD packages of 18 classic series, including “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “The Andy Griffith Show” and other public domain material. Steve Scebelo, a licensing executive at TV Guide, said the packages will have commentary from TV Guide editors and other material, including crossword puzzles and extras. He said the packages will include both public domain and, he hopes, some licensed material. Although much of the public domain material has been released in other forms, he said, “It’s all in how you market it.”

Carl Amari, president of Falcon, said it was his company’s intention to license some product for his TV Guide-branded packages. Other public domain TV-on-DVD marketers, he complained, “are all selling the same episodes.” In some cases, as with “The Beverly Hillbillies,” about 50 episodes are in the public domain and the rest are still copyrighted, he noted. Mr. Amari said that Falcon, working through its own lawyer, is trying to negotiate with attorneys representing the estates of past TV luminaries such as Milton Berle and is also trying to reach the relevant licensing executives at some entertainment conglomerates that have material still under copyright.

“What we’re doing is trying to license stuff that has been on the back burner for a lot of these companies,” he said. The current plan, he said, is to market his TV-on-DVD packages at $9.99, a price that would not be possible without some public domain product.

Some public domain packages benefit from clever marketing. GoodTimes Entertainment labeled its public domain “The Lucy Show” DVD packages, consisting of shows that first aired between 1966 and 1968, as “Lost Episodes.” In fact, they were never really lost, unless one counts license fees. The packages are lucrative in the extreme, given that no royalties of any kind are being paid. GoodTimes charges $19.95 for DVDs offering four episodes each of “Bonanza” and “The Beverly Hillbillies,” most of that being profit.

Madacy Entertainment employs a full-time legal consultant who does nothing but research which TV shows and movies are in the public domain, said spokesman Mark Jenkins. “A lot of this stuff just falls through the cracks,” he said.

Under existing law, Madacy explained, TV show copyrights must be renewed every 28 years. If the copyright owners neglect to renew, the property is fair game for anyone who wants to put it out.

The studios are finally waking up to the situation. “You do have to be careful. It’s your legacy,” noted Pamela Godfrey, a spokeswoman for Warner Home Video, who said studios are very much aware of the need to keep copyrights current.

Keeping Up Copyrights

“What were they thinking?” she asked, speaking of executives who allowed TV properties to slip into the public domain. “I do know for the studio properties now, the policy is never to give up anything, ever. We have lawyers who do nothing but pore through the contracts to make sure nothing goes out of copyright.”

In many cases, the current copyright holders are far removed from the original creators. “The Lucy Show,” for example, was produced for CBS by Desilu. Lucie Arnaz, Lucille Ball’s daughter, operates an enterprise called Desilu Too out of Bedford, N.Y., that markets some Lucy-based DVDs.

A spokeswoman for Desilu Too said the family hasn’t owned the shows since 1967, when the original Desilu company was sold to Paramount. She declined to comment on why some material is in the public domain now. Paramount Home Entertainment, which holds copyrights for episodes of “The Lucy Show” and “The Andy Griffith Show,” did not return a phone call seeking comment before press time.

Some companies that distribute public domain DVDs are reluctant to discuss the issue of public domain material, perhaps, observed Ralph Tribbey, editor of the DVD newsletter DVD Release Report, “because they’re worried about potential competitors.” Small wonder, when DVD distributors such as Madacy can charge almost $50 for a boxed “Andy Griffith Show” DVD set, while paying only small change for production. Mr. Amari of Falcon Picture Group estimated that a two-DVD set would cost him less than $2 to produce.

GoodTimes Entertainment, the purveyor of “Lucy’s Lost Episodes,” declined to discuss its TV-on-DVD titles. Spokeswoman Kristin Foster said executives there would “not be available to do an interview on this.”

TV on DVD “is a gold mine,” said Mr. Tribbey. “In the last 36 months, it’s exploded.”

Mr. Tribbey said that when home video was released in the VHS format, it was cumbersome to put out a lot of TV material, since only one or two shows filled an entire cassette. On DVD it’s a different story. Now an entire season can be released on one or two discs.

`Do the Math’

The average household in 1997 was buying six or seven VHS tapes a year, while the average DVD household today buys “north of 15 titles” a year, with 32,000 DVD titles of all sorts to choose from. DVD is also far more convenient for entertainment conglomerates from the cost standpoint, with a six-disc DVD box that sells for $60 and up costing “less than $5 in manufacturing costs,” Mr. Tribbey said. “Do the math.”

With DVD revenue continuing to rise, some distributors have become more aggressive about taking product out of the public domain. Madacy’s Mr. Jenkins noted that his company used to distribute a DVD of the classic movie “His Girl Friday,” originally based on a Ben Hecht play. However, it recently fell back into copyright protection because Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment bought the rights to the original play for approximately $3 million.