Film Archives Being Eaten Away; Would Be Nice If People Could Make Copies To Preserve

from the but-would-that-be-'theft'? dept

Sneeje points us to a recent BBC article about how many old films are being literally eaten up by fungus, such that important elements of our history are being deleted via the “archival” process. Of course, if this content was digitized and allowed to be shared, this wouldn’t be a problem, as there would be more and more copies available, rather than relying on a single point of failure made up of film with a gel coating that happens to be “ideal food for fungi like Aspergillus and Penicillium.”

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Comments on “Film Archives Being Eaten Away; Would Be Nice If People Could Make Copies To Preserve”

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MrWilson says:

Re: Re:

It would be one thing if it were only a matter of money. The rights to some films are wrapped up in (overly)complicated contract clauses.

It’s why Netflix can’t stream some older movies. For instance, Michael Jackson’s estate owns some Beatles music and if those songs are played in a movie, the estate gets to demand a separate fee on top of what Netflix pays to the studio. If a rights holder doesn’t want a movie containing their song to be licensed for streaming video, they can block it altogether.

Yet another reason why copyright needs to expire within 15 years (or less in the digital era).

ChurchHatesTucker (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

It would be one thing if it were only a matter of disentangling the (overly)complicated contract clauses. The rights for some films are completely unknown. The rightsholders have disappeared. And for most of the films in question, copyright had to be declared. Lords of Kobol help us when the post-78 stuff starts to become problematic.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

“Lords of Kobol help us when the post-78 stuff starts to become problematic.”

Already happening.

As far as I know, the only reason why Night Of The Creeps and The Monster Squad (both mid-80s productions) finally made it to DVD was because the strong cult following made it worth untangling the copyright maze they were trapped in. God help any movie that’s not so popular…

Anonymous Coward says:

Why copy if you can execute better?

The reality is that if Conan properly executes, he could have a better show. Thing is that it’s been hyped so much that if not properly executed, it will simply flop.

Witness item number 1:
This video should have been pushed out six months ago when the contract was signed and not yesterday:

Sorry to say it, but Conan may ultimately be a victim of bad execution. Bad execution on TBS’s part.

Jon Lawrence (profile) says:

Re: Why copy if you can execute better?

Haha! You just described 99% of network and cable produced content out there – and 99.999% of indie content.

Too many “creative” folks don’t care about execution, they care about “their vision” and never the two shall meet.

We run into bad execution constraints every single day of production when we have not been properly funded, or cash flowed, or people add loads of new ideas, or change original ideas, at the last minute. This kind of decision making always has financial impacts, and in many cases, long term legal impacts as well (as in Conan).

The only way around it A) to do everything by yourself and obsess on execution, or B) quit working with humans. 😉

Anonymous Coward says:

Deliberate Destruction

It is not just hungry bugs that are destroying the film heritage. Movie studios like to keep all film copies under their control. Then when some film is approaching the date when it would fall into the public domain, they deliberately destroy it. If asked, they would claim to be just having a cleanup and tidying their shelves. The real reason is that they do not want any old stuff competing with their paid offerings.

The only way of fixing that problem is for Congress to write into copyright law that a best-quality copy must be deposited with an official film archive as soon as copyright is granted. If there is no deposit or it is not the best possible quality — no copyright. The archive must check, independently and skeptically.

Seriously, what are the chances of Congress being that smart?

Anonymous Coward says:

“Would Be Nice If People Could Make Copies To Preserve”

Ask that to a certain class of people and they’ll explode.

Think of all the children and families that will go hungry if people could copy those things freely never mind that some of those things are 90 years old already, people will never produce anything if those things are allowed to be freely distributed OMG is the end of the world as we know it.

Pedro Vasconcellos (user link) says:

The economics don't favor it

The answer is simpler than a conspiracy theory or the situation of the rights. It’s simply not cost effective.

I’ve looked into the issue myself and the consensus is that investing in generalized digitization has a negative return (in other words, even with VOD and whatever you think about, you will never monetize it enough to pay for the digitization costs).

That is why all major film digitization/preservation efforts have somehow been funded with tax-payers’ money – CCTV in China, BBC in the UK and so on.

Of course, one could cherry pick what is worth preserving and what is not, but if the choice is left for the rights owners, they will obviously choose only the valuable material – and not necessarily what is historically relevant.

Jon Lawrence (profile) says:

Re: The economics don't favor it

This is an accurate statement.

Film restoration, and scanning to a digital master easily runs into the 6 or 7 figures per film depending on the state of deterioration.

x how many films? And maybe over the next 10 or 20 years they can make how much back? Pass.

From an economic standpoint, it makes no sense. From a cultural standpoint, I’m in agreement it would be nice if they could be saved…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: The economics don't favor it

“Film restoration”

If the film weren’t so old there would be no need for film restoration. If people were allowed to make copies of the film a long time ago we (ie: theaters that owned the film) could have more easily made newer copies of the older film a long time ago before the originals deteriorated. Industries could have later much more easily arisen to convert it to VHS and sold those VHS tapes for a profit. Now that the film is so old and no one was allowed to make copies of it a long time ago we must now work on restoration of the originals.

Anonymous Coward says:

Why doesn't Google do this?

Let’s face it, deliberate destruction is something in your head.

I can’t see this being true unless your desire is to actually destroy the British film archives in favor of American Capitalistic ideologies. Then, I could see not a conspiracy theory, but a weird series of events.

Didn’t copyright originate in Brittan? Sad series of events indeed. Why hasn’t Google catalaogued these films? With their amazing ability to troll (err, I meant collect) these archives, I would assume they would resonate with their goal to invade home privacy while also cataloging the world’s information.

They should have Google Burgers for everyone.

Suzanne Lainson (profile) says:

Preservation is costly

The cost of preservation, rather than copyright issues, is likely the bigger problem.

National Film Preservation Foundation: Why Preserve Film?: “The laboratory work necessary to save a film is expensive. In 2010, making a new master and viewing print of a seven-reel black-and-white silent feature costs about $18,115, assuming that no special restoration work is required. Making a supervised digital video for public viewing adds another $3,000 to the total. Preserving a sound feature costs even more.”

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Preservation is costly

“The cost of preservation, rather than copyright issues, is likely the bigger problem.”

I wish people will stop being so bone headed.

If you look at the Bible or any well preserved historical text do they ever preserve the original? No, the originals that were written are likely long lost in history. What we have is copies. Why try to figure out elaborate ways to preserve the originals for thousands of years when we can simply make copies from time to time and preserve the brand new copies. Only things etched on cave walls are preserved for a very long time.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Preservation is costly

My guess is that when people say preservation, they really do mean making copies rather than making the original print last until the end of time (minus a day of course). Either they make another film copy or a digital scan, but either way it’s a copy. The big difference between this and your ordinary digital copying is that copying an old piece of film to a digital image is time consuming and expensive, whereas digital copying is easily accomplished in minutes by practically anyone.

Suzanne Lainson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Preservation is costly

Yes. They aren’t trying to save the original. The cost is in preserving the original enough to make a copy from it.

Many of the old films were either recycled or allowed to deteriorate because no one saw the value in saving them. So now, in order to make copies, someone has to pay for the effort.

There are groups saving old films, but they have to raise the money to do so.

Multiple copies were made of the original films, but in many cases they have all been lost. Now there may be one copy left and if it is falling apart, it’s an expensive proposition to save it enough to make more copies.

I’m just pointing out that even without any copyright issues, you’re still stuck with the same technological problems that there appears to be limited funds to deal with.

xs (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Preservation is costly

No, without copyright issues, there would likely be many more copies of films in much better conditions out there in the wild, making the elaborate effort to restore and preserve that single copy we have left a moot point.

Prevalence of copies is a much better preservation technique than any scheme you could ever possibly devise.

Suzanne Lainson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Preservation is costly

No, without copyright issues, there would likely be many more copies of films in much better conditions out there in the wild, making the elaborate effort to restore and preserve that single copy we have left a moot point.

But that’s what I am trying to say. The old copies were unstable. Even if there had been 1000s of copies, they weren’t being kept, or they weren’t being kept well. These were fragile items and also more useful when they were recycled, so the idea that they should have been saved for generations wasn’t the norm.

It’s a bit like saying that if there weren’t copyright issues, we’d have multiple copies of your home photos. People just didn’t save them.

It was more of a technology issue than a copyright issue why the films weren’t preserved. Same with old TV shows. The producers saw them as live shows with no replay value. There are exceptions, like the Lucy shows, but most early TV shows are gone.

xs (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Preservation is costly

You are still missing the point. Had there been no copyright restrictions, it wouldn’t be up to the studios and copyright owners to keep copies and decide which one to keep. And if they are freely available for anyone to copy, copying effort will likely happen more or less continuously as people acquires copies of films, shows they are interested in. So we don’t need to preserve any particular copies, because we will have newer copies in better conditions available.

This is how old classics from ancient time are preserved, by people copying the original, instead of locking it up in an archive. Those that were locked up for one reason or another had all been lost.

Suzanne Lainson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Preservation is costly

No, I’m not missing the point. There were also tons of home movies and cheap nickelodeon movies being made when the technology was introduced. Copies of those weren’t made and saved either. It wasn’t as if big studios locked up those movies. Most of the movies being made were treated as disposables.

How many copies does anyone make of their own stuff? Before there were photocopy machines, how many people made duplicates of what they wrote and saved those? Most people haven’t saved their own personal history, so much of it has been lost, too.

When my father died, he had a lot of personal papers that might have been of interest to naval historians. But we didn’t have the time or wherewithal to get them to an archivist. So they were destroyed. I know someone somewhere might have wanted them, but we didn’t have the time to save them or a place to store them.

xs (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:6 Preservation is costly

If those people made their home movies and then somehow allowed other people to make copies, they probably wouldn’t be lost.

If you father had let his personal papers’s content be known to the public and allowed people to copy them, as he was accruing them, then you wouldn’t have to worry about archiving it after his death. Copies of his papers would have already been out there.

Although these are unlikely scenario because of privacy and other personal reasons, the concept is the same. If you allow people to copy your work from the beginning, it’s more likely than not that you can find a copy out there when your original was destroyed.

Going back to the original story, had movie studios not destroyed all but the few copies of movies left for archive purposes, it would have been more likely than not that we would find a copy of a particular film out there in better shape. Thus making expensive restoration unnecessary.

And why was there only a few copies left? Copyright holders don’t want the material spread around, so they recovered them all. Why were most destroyed? Because copyright holders have no need for hundreds of copies of the same thing. Why are they in bad shape? Because copyright holders, by themselves, can’t find enough economic use for the old copy, and thus don’t have the economic incentive to maintain them properly.

Hope you can see the point, finally.

Jon Lawrence (profile) says:

Re: Preservation is costly

Wow – that’s an understatement.

I’ve spent over $50,000 just doing a “digital cleaning” of dirt on old negatives for transfer (and by old, we’re only talking about less than 2 decades).

I suppose if you had pristine negative you’re perfectly happy with, and all you’re doing is striking a single new transfer IP, and a crappy one pass scan to digibeta (NTSC), maybe $3k. More common, a decent transfer on a 4k telecine to HDCAM SR (standard digital deliverable today) runs between $10k and 25k, that’s if you’re not doing any color changes or corrections in the telecine process.

Anonymous Coward says:


If Dr. Schmidt’s engineers were smart, they would have a solution to restoration of films about to enter the public domain. But they get paid by the US Government for driving around cities and making public what they choose or have a vested interest in.

They are focused on aligning ideas to people. Their answer to privacy is to whine to the courts and start over. Brilliant if you work in intelligence, Seems kinda weird if you work for anyone else.

Dave says:

The Beeb

The Beeb hasn’t always been so far-sighted. Loads of early videotapes were wiped and re-used, thereby losing precious archive material. I understand that a lot of archive material is only still around because of “telerecordings”, which is what the industry used to call filming (with REAL FILM!) programmes by literally pointing a movie camera at a CRT screen, although the resultant quality was a tad smeary when re-transmitted, if I remember correctly.

Anonymous Coward says:

People, stop being idiots. Copyright IS the problem. There is no need to keep preserving originals if people can just keep making brand new copies of the originals and then copies of those copies, etc… That’s the whole point of this post. Especially in this digital era where we can make perfect copies of everything.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I think people talking about the costs are stating that while copyright is a problem, the cost of digitizing a large archive can be expensive in its own right. Basically think about scanning 200,000 badly degraded photos per film. Still copyright is often the blocking factor for films whose copyright holders are unknown/unreasonable.

Manfriend says:

I really wish it were about greed, because then at least they could be bribed and the content could be preserved. Instead it’s about control and tossing one’s toys out of the pram because you’re a spoiled little brat, as this old article from earlier this year clearly illustrates:

Even if outsiders are willing to pay the expensive costs of restoring now public domain footage the big media types refuse to allow it. Things like this are why I do not respect or follow copyright laws. They are meaningless contracts because the other party refuses to keep its end of the bargain.

Errant Garnish (profile) says:

Copies aren't copies

The argument to crowdsource archiving of content by making digital copies of films freely available falls flat (for now) due to the large size of an uncompressed film vs. the bandwidth and space available to move and store it.

The reason film originals sit in cans on the archive shelf is that 1.) the film is going to last hundreds of years if properly kept, much longer than any digital medium in use today, and 2.) the film original is the highest possible quality copy of the content.

Not long ago DVD’s were thought to be the pinnacle of consumer video quality, even though they hold a small fraction of the information on the original film. Now that we have BluRay and HD television we get an idea of what we were missing. But even those formats, thought by the average viewer today to be the best possible rendition, still only hold a fraction of the information of the original.

Giving everyone a “copy” of these films will preserve some but not all of their value. The mold — or some other form of decay — will win in the end.


Suzanne Lainson (profile) says:

Preservation is costly

If you father had let his personal papers’s content be known to the public and allowed people to copy them, as he was accruing them, then you wouldn’t have to worry about archiving it after his death. Copies of his papers would have already been out there.

His stuff was on display in his basement. He proudly showed it off to visitors. But as far as I know, no one volunteered to come in to physically copy everything he owned. We had old newspapers articles, old photos, old pamphlets, etc. There may be copies spread out in various people’s personal collections, but we had a collection already accumulated which none of us knew what to do with. I have no space in my condo. My daughters went through everything and kept what they wanted. Everything else was trashed. Sadly. I would have loved to have found a home for it all, but didn’t have one available.

Is there a group of people volunteering to copy old photos, papers, and movies of everyone who has them? If so, yes, I think we can make a permanent record of every artifact in this culture. But right now, we have more decaying items that need copying than we have the manpower to do it.

All I am saying is that there is stuff being trashed that might someday have historical value but isn’t being saved. And not because of copyright issues.

And the reason I say this is that if you want to archive everything, there are more problems than just copyright. Even if there aren’t copyright issues, lots of stuff isn’t going to be saved. You need to deal with that issue, too.

People who might one day become famous have trashed early writings/art/etc. because no one knows they might be worth something someday. Painters who are short on canvas paint over their paintings, so those get lost.

I have a painting that I saved from my father’s house which turns out is worth about $15,000 because I looked up the artist’s signature. But the paint is starting to chip off. I’m not sure what to do about that. I know there are art restorers, but how do I get the painting to one of them without further damage?

Suzanne Lainson (profile) says:

How many of you are saving/documenting everything you've created?

I’ll bet none of you is saving every photo you’ve taken, every video you’ve shot, everything you have ever written.

Now let’s say there are companies that aren’t bothering to save what they have created.

And let’s say consumers aren’t bothering to save whatever copies they might have made of those products, particularly if the copies are starting to rot.

So over the course of 100 years, you discover that something that was available at one point has not been saved by anyone. That’s what has happened with certain cultural artifacts. Buildings haven’t been saved. Products haven’t been saved. Meeting notes haven’t been saved. Films and videos haven’t been saved.

There are products that were mass produced that have more or less disappeared because no one bothered to save them. Maybe we have pictures of them, if we are lucky, but think of all the stuff produced in the 19th and 20th centuries that are gone, not because people were prevented from making copies, but because no one thought the copies were worth saving. They took up space. They required maintenance. They wore out. They fell out of favor or became a political liability so people destroyed them.

Saving history is a complex issue.

PaulT (profile) says:


I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – just look as Nosferatu vs. London After Midnight. The former only exists thanks to film pirates, is constant seller, and has been the inspiration for many new works including a remake and a fictionalised “behind the scenes” movie (Shadow Of The Vampire) that garnered an Oscar nomination. The latter is lost to history thanks to aggressive copyright enforcement and a tragic accident that means that while Lon Chaney’s makeup design for the movie is iconic, nobody in the modern era has seen it.

If you can’t see the problem here, you’re a drooling moron who has no business living in modern society, let alone making rules for it.

PRMan (profile) says:

Preservation is costly

Exactly. We have copies of the New Testament from around 125 AD, less than 100 years after Jesus walked the earth.

The Old Testament is longer, but there are manuscripts from around 1000 AD. Some parts can be found from around the time of Christ (interestingly with very few changes compared to the 1000 AD version, mostly musical instrument and animal names). But obviously, the point is very valid that it’s easier to preserve through massive copying.

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