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George Romero, Zombies... And The Public Domain

As you probably heard, over the weekend, famed filmmaker George Romero passed away. Romero's influence on film making is legendary -- and people today still seem amazed to find out that basically everything you think you know today about the concept of "zombies" exists almost entirely because of Romero and Night of the Living Dead. He really invented the entire genre, and the use of zombies as social commentary. But, perhaps just as importantly -- you may not realize that a big part of why Romero's vision of zombies as flesh/brain-eating undead creatures taking over the world -- is because his key movie is already in the public domain:

It's true. You can go watch the movie now and you're not violating anyone's copyright. A few years back, Plagiarism Today did an excellent job summarizing the story. In short, under one of the many quirks of the 1909 Copyright Act, a messed up copyright notice would put a work into the public domain (in fact, this quirk of copyright law was one of the main reasons given by some for why copyright should be automatically placed on everything in the 1976 Copyright Act). But for Night of the Living Dead a last minute name change meant a messed up copyright notice... and, voila, public domain.

The first prints of “Night of the Living Dead” didn’t use the title we know it as today. Instead, it referred to the movie as “Night of the Flesh Eaters”, one of the working titles of the movie. However, before release, the title was changed to its more familiar version but, when changing the title card, the distributor forgot to put the copyright notice on the final print.

Though that would not be a large issue today (the Copyright Act of 1976 removed all notice requirements), in 1968 that meant the movie was not protected by copyright and, instead, was placed immediately into the public domain.

But, more importantly, this "accident" also may have contributed to the movies popularity and influence on culture. As Plagiarism today notes, so many other works basically copied Romero's zombies and how they acted -- while others used clips directly from the film. All of that was perfectly legal. And tons of "derivative works" never had to worry about being hit up with copyright infringement claims.

Many movies either referenced scenes from “Night of the Living Dead” or films that used footage directly from its predecessor, often on TVs playing in the background.

All in all, hundreds of zombie movies have been made that built upon “Night of the Living Dead” in one way or another, ranging from low-budget films to blockbusters. Even many video games such as the “Resident Evil” series (and subsequent movies) also owe a great deal to it.

And while some will obviously point out that the distributor (who messed up the copyright notice) raked in tons of money from Night of the Living Dead while Romero himself made little -- the widespread success of the movie did enable him to go on and make many more films and more, for which he was paid quite nicely over his career. As Plagiarism Today rightly notes, the end result worked out great for Romero:

Even though Romero, without a doubt, missed out on a lot of money due to the copyright mishap with “Night of the Living Dead”, the story ends well for him. The popularity of the film enabled him not only to create a successful series of sequels that he retained copyright in, but also other opportunities to exploit his notoriety, including books, comics and more.

For the zombie movie industry, however, the lapse of “Night of the Living Dead” into the public domain turned out to be a boon. With a well-understood set of clear-cut rules, others were able to build on and expand on the work without paying a licensing fee or fear of being sued. This helped grow the genre, especially during the long wait between “official” sequels.

This is not, necessarily, an argument that all things must be in the public domain, but a reminder that -- contrary to the claims of some -- just because some stuff is in the public domain, or even just available for free, it doesn't mean there aren't ways to build real businesses and real creativity off of it. Romero was a film making genius in many, many ways -- and the public domain helped his career greatly. It's too bad we now deny that option to basically everyone else.

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