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2019 Public Domain Film Festival Review

Why a Film Festival?


In January 2019, after decades of copyright protection, the United States welcomed an entire year’s worth of creative works into the Public Domain. On the first of the year, all works published before 1924 lost their copyright status.

To commemorate the occasion, to teach creative students about copyright law, and to provide a hands-on learning experience using public domain materials, our office teamed up with the Theatre Media Arts Department to host a 48-Hour Public Domain Film Festival.

Designing the Contest

We wanted to make sure the name didn’t scare off any filmmakers and ensure that we got abundant participation. So, we put up the latest and greatest GoPro model and accompanying Karma drone up as grand prize. In addition, the top three teams also received Copyright Fight Club t-shirts and a box of goodies from the Cookie Bakery, Crumbl.

To narrow down the vastness of the public domain, we chose eight literary works and a selection of audio recordings from 1923. The teams had to incorporate one of the eight literary works into their film in some way. The audio recordings were available as a resource, but the teams were not required to use them. We released these materials ahead of time so that teams could research them before learning the prompt. After all, some of these works were full length novels and would be impossible to digest within the 48-hour time limit.

We also stipulated that third party copyrighted material would disqualify teams from eligibility for the GoPro. They were forced to use material in the public domain or make up something original.

To further complicate matters, we also gave each team an open-ended prompt to spark the idea for their submissions. At 11:59 PM on Thursday January 17th, we sent an email out to team captains with the prompt and the festival began.

Each team had to submit a low-resolution version of their film to our office by 11:59 PM on Saturday January 19th. We gave each team an extra day or so to upload a high-resolution version of their videos. We did this so that teams could spend the full 48 hours working on the film, instead of using a large chunk of the time to export their sizable video files.

The Envelope, Please!

On Thursday evening, January 24th, we held a screening of seven films that were submitted for the competition. At the screening, a panel of three judges with film or copyright backgrounds watched the entries and rated them in three categories: creativity, film quality, and use of the public domain material.

Over 100 people attended the screening. They watched the entries and voted in a live poll to determine a winner of an Audience Favorite Award. This award received free camera equipment rentals from a Utah company called Allen’s Camera.

Was it Worth the Time?

We thought the event was a massive success. We achieved several of the hopes we had identified at the outset.

  • The student teams reported enjoying the opportunity to push their creativity in respect to the public domain materials and incorporating the prompt.

“We loved having to use the public domain works. We loved the challenge of incorporating these old works into our film, it really made us have to flex our filmmaking/storytelling muscles. It also made us think of story ideas that we never would have come up without these works.” - Festival Participant

  • We were moved by how deeply the filmmakers connected to the public domain works.

“I really connected to Kahlil Gibran's work because it is incredibly empowering and inspirational. Growing up, I struggled a lot with what others thought of me and I let those opinions control my life. Once I read The Prophet, I knew that I wanted to create a work that would uplift others and help them glimpse the beauty they have within. The words you hear are mostly the words of Gibran, but I added a few sentences and words here and there to add a more modern emphasis on an otherwise timeless and beautiful work.” - Festival Participant

  • The quality of the films was outstanding.

Our office was surprised by the number of people that showed up to the screening. The audience got to watch seven outstanding films. It showcased both the creativity we have on campus and educated a larger population about a copyright principle.

See for Yourself

Most importantly, we felt that we provided an opportunity for experiential learning with a topic that is usually considered a wet blanket: copyright law. Hopefully, the filmmakers will remember the experience as they interact with copyrighted materials in the future and recognize that quality materials exist in the public domain or through Creative Commons licenses for their use. You can enjoy the film in the media player below.