George Romero, Zombies... And The Public Domain

from the a-rememberance dept

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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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 18 Jul 2017 @ 11:14am

    I just wish he’d hurry up and get on with the whole “reanimated corpse” thing, because we’ve been waiting for a couple of days now and I’m starting to think this whole “Romero is the father of zombies” thing doesn’t hold much weight.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    kadmos1 (profile), 18 Jul 2017 @ 9:19pm

    This is a case of where public domain and copyright sort of balance each other: the original is now public domain but there are still copyrighted master/digitally remastered versions. Despite being a copyright minimalist (namely from Disney lobbying), at least there is a private and public property version. The trick is figuring out which is the original because otherwise you would be downloading a still-copyrighted version.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Wendy Cockcroft, 20 Jul 2017 @ 5:19am

      Re:

      That's one of the reasons why I've turned against copyright; that's such a massive abuse, kadmos1. A work is either copyright or not, whether amendments have been made or not. Cleaning it up digitally shouldn't rob the public domain.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    PaulT (profile), 19 Jul 2017 @ 12:17am

    NOTLD is one of the examples I always bring up when people start with the ridiculous lie that people will never work if their older work is free, or that nobody buys public domain works. Romero has had a huge career while NOLTD has been public domain, and it's sold millions of copies since then as well.

    Now, I'll agree that it's problematic that it went into the PD as quickly as it did - I do believe that Romero, Russo et al. should have had more direct income from the work - but they were able to leverage it into future and arguably better art. Saying, as some would, that the Romero estate needs another century of income because Survival Of The Dead (his last movie) was a flop is absurd.

    I would take slight issue with calling NOTLD his masterpiece, as many I know would say that accolade belongs to Dawn Of The Dead. That in itself should be an interesting case study going forward, with its international co-production status, multiple cuts for different regions, etc. (Dario Argento was given co-producer credit, was able to create his own cut entitled Zombi for the Italian market, which led directly to numerous famous rip-offs cashing in on that title).

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Rekrul, 19 Jul 2017 @ 3:45pm

      Re:

      Diverging from the topic for a moment...

      Saying, as some would, that the Romero estate needs another century of income because Survival Of The Dead (his last movie) was a flop is absurd.

      I wasn't crazy about Survival of the Dead, but I did like Diary of the Dead, although it seems like I'm the only one who did. Most people seem to focus on the cheesy CGI of a couple scenes while forgetting that his classic films had some pretty cheesy practical effects as well. Personally, I thought that Diary captured the feeling of being caught up in a fast-spreading zombie apocalypse perfectly. It had a hopelessness to it that even works like The Walking Dead lack.

      I would take slight issue with calling NOTLD his masterpiece, as many I know would say that accolade belongs to Dawn Of The Dead.

      I never saw NotLD until after I'd seen Dawn and Day. To be honest I found it a little boring. It's not that I need continuous action, but there are so many scenes of the people in the farm house arguing over little stuff, like where the TV should be located, that some parts of it become a chore to sit through.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        PaulT (profile), 20 Jul 2017 @ 12:20am

        Re: Re:

        I enjoyed Survival a lot. I've often said that if it was an Italian movie made in the late 80s by Bruno Mattei rather than 2009 by Romero, the same people crapping over it would be big fans. Diary on the other hand... the problem is that it was Romero trying to cash in on both the found footage fad and the rise of social media and failing on both fronts. I don't think he really got either thing, he was just trying his hand because it allowed him to work at much lower budget levels. It had its moments, but it was pretty bad overall. Kudos if you really like it, but IMHO it is the weakest of Romero's zombie cycle.

        I hear you with NOTLD, it's very much of its time and quite slow/talky. But, its impact and influence cannot be understated, even though Dawn was really the movie that everything after 1980 is really copying.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Wendy Cockcroft, 20 Jul 2017 @ 5:23am

          Re: Re: Re:

          Dawn was brilliant. Do you know actor Ken Foree, who played the surviving SWAT team member, held film festivals here in the UK?

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ken_Foree#Foree_Fest

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Rekrul, 20 Jul 2017 @ 1:39pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          I enjoyed Survival a lot. I've often said that if it was an Italian movie made in the late 80s by Bruno Mattei rather than 2009 by Romero, the same people crapping over it would be big fans.

          I didn't like that it had the woman zombie riding a horse. She was acting too much like she still had her intelligence. While I don't recall the other Romero films showing zombies eating animals, NotLD did show one zombie eating a bug (or maybe a lizard?) off a tree. So realistically, she should have been chowing down on that horse rather than riding it. Also, while Day and Land did show zombies retaining some intelligence, I thought that the level of intelligence and coordination shown by that female zombie was out of line for the Romero universe. In fact, at first I didn't even realize that she was a zombie.

          Diary on the other hand... the problem is that it was Romero trying to cash in on both the found footage fad and the rise of social media and failing on both fronts. I don't think he really got either thing, he was just trying his hand because it allowed him to work at much lower budget levels. It had its moments, but it was pretty bad overall. Kudos if you really like it, but IMHO it is the weakest of Romero's zombie cycle.

          I'll admit that it wasn't the greatest film, but...

          With Romero's other films, even the bleakest ones, I didn't really feel a sense of desperation. In Night, they were just people under siege in a farmhouse trying to stay alive until help came. In Dawn, they had things pretty good until the bikers broke in. In Day, their little base was pretty secure and the biggest threat seemed to come from Rhodes, at least until Miguel went nutty and decided to let the zombies in. In Land, they once again had a safe zone, even if the zombies did eventually invade it. Even in Survival, the island would have been pretty secure if a few idiots hadn't insisted on keeping their dead relatives around.

          However with Diary, there really wasn't any safe place. Everywhere they went, it was just a few survivors trying to get by. They realized that no help was coming and that there really wasn't anywhere to go. It left me with a weird sense of depression that I've only ever felt with one other film; Testament, a TV movie about the aftermath of a limited nuclear war on a small town. At first they think they're lucky because none of the bombs hit near them. Then the people start dying from radiation poisoning and you watch the main family fall apart.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            PaulT (profile), 21 Jul 2017 @ 12:12am

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            "So realistically"

            I did mention Italian 80s movies by the likes of Mattei. Realism has nothing to do with it ;)

            "In Dawn, they had things pretty good until the bikers broke in."

            I think that's kind of the point with those films, though. The zombies themselves are a real threat, but one that can be dealt with. The actual danger is always other human beings. Most of them have people able to handle the danger, but it's petty arguments and a rogue human that messes things up.

            I'm glad you got something out of Diary, however. For me, the found footage angle wasn't working, the tech was wrong, and I was disappointed that he told another origin story after his last few zombie movies were about the aftermath long after it had all started. But, if you enjoyed it, Romero will be happy :)

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    TimothyAWiseman (profile), 19 Jul 2017 @ 8:35am

    A great loss

    It is absolutely tragic that we have lost George Romero. That said, this article does a great job explaining the importance of Night of the Living Dead being in the public domain. That helped impact culture in ways it would not have had it been copyrighted. I have previously written about that before at https://historyandnow.com/2017/02/20/a-historical-look-at-the-public-domain/ and it is being discussed in a forthcoming book about the impact of Zombie Video Games. Personally, I'm hoping the zombie genre he inspired lasts for a long time.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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