On YouTube, Piracy, Links and Streaming

“Why aren’t you linking to this movie on YouTube?”

“Why don’t you direct people to Netflix?”

“Are there any free silent films you can share with me?”

I get asked these questions pretty often and so I thought I would post a little article to discuss the ins and outs of silent film linking and why I make certain decisions.

Legal Stuff: This article applies to my website and the copyright laws of my country, I am not presenting it as legal advice or a one-size-fits-all approach. To the best of my knowledge, everything here is accurate but if it isn’t, I didn’t mean to do it. I promise.

I see many silent films on YouTube, why don’t you link to them?

YouTube has calmed down in recent years but it is still the wild west as far as silent movies are concerned. A good number of the silent films available on the site are, frankly, not worth watching. They’re battered public domain prints, often poorly transferred and they sport either inappropriate scores or no scores at all. Why the heck would I link over to content that presents silent films so poorly? (Especially if quality home video editions are available.) It’s hard enough to get people to appreciate professionally transferred silents with great scores.

And then there are the gorgeous, restored films lifted from home video releases. Um, yeah, not going to link over to pirated stuff. Sorry. In addition to everything else, knowingly linking to material that infringes on someone’s copyright can land websites in legal trouble. (A silent film may be in the public domain but scores, restoration work, new title cards, etc. may still be under copyright.)

But Nosferatu was saved through piracy! I want to pirate!

Stop being obtuse. There is an enormous difference between a film being saved from deliberate destruction (or a collector copy being privately swapped) and bit-torrenting a silent film widely available on home video because you don’t want to cough up $20. This is not open for discussion. Don’t even try.

But some people try. Oh boy, do they try. Like this person accused the venerable Lobster Films of committing a crime by claiming copyright ownership over their own restoration.

So, to recap, ripping a copyrighted restoration from a DVD and posting it online as their own is not wrong but the PEOPLE WHO DID THE RESTORING exercising their legals rights is criminal. Up is down, down is up, cats and dogs are living together.

I stole from you, which makes YOU the thief! Whoop whoop!

Independent silent film restorers and distributors are not shadowy multinational corporations. They’re usually small businesses run by enthusiasts and they’re not getting rich. They rely on sales of earlier items to finance future products and pirating from them is killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. Stealing from them does not make you Robin Hood. It makes you Dennis Moore. (See what I did there? I linked to the official Monty Python YouTube channel.)

What about Amazon Prime, Netflix, etc.?

These are all companies that offer legal streaming but their content shifts pretty quickly. If I linked to streamable silents, I would be doing nothing but updating my reviews all day. There’s no workable central hub for streaming right now and so we will have to wait for technology to catch up, if it ever does. For now, my links will be focused on DVD/Bluray.

Why are your film availability links so North America-centric?

I live in California and so I tend to link to film sources that I am personally familiar with. I do try to link over to foreign releases if they represent the only available edition but generally speaking, I am staying in my comfort zone.

Are there any free silent film titles you will link to?

But some happiness is easier to earn than others.

Yes! Everyone likes free stuff and there are plenty of legal ways to see silent movies with zero cash changing hands. Archives and organizations like the Library of Congress, the Irish Film Institute, the National Film Preservation Foundation and the BFI have all made quality versions of their holdings available for free and legal streaming. Private collectors like Christopher Bird and accompanists like Ben Model have also made films available through YouTube.

Further, these streaming sources tend to be more stable (i.e. they don’t pull stuff down randomly) than the big guys and so I am much more inclined to link to them.

I hope this answered a few of your questions. Be honest, be legal, support the good guys and we get more silent movies. Happy viewing!


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14 Replies to “On YouTube, Piracy, Links and Streaming”

  1. Thanks so much for pointing this out (though I can’t understand why folks think NEW / ORIGINAL work done on an old film wouldn’t be copyright protected. )A 1919 film is public domain, but a recent score or restoration would not be. The actual film may be PD, but all the modern work done to a specific re-release is not.

    These folks work for far less than they are worth. If we put them out of business, we will have nothing(killing the goose laying the golden eggs is a fitting anology).


    1. Yes, the sense of entitlement is appalling. “This film belongs to the public!” is easy to say but that same film would still be lying in pieces in three different archives without the hard work of the very few men and women who possess the expertise to restore these things. I do think their is a general misconception that anything involving movies is a million dollar industry, as proven by some collectors demanding enormous sums to sell their holdings to archives or museums.

      I know that silent films can be pricey and I try to share as many free & legal links as I can but piracy is not the answer and it will cut off our supply.

  2. Agree entirely with your policies; apart from the ethical aspects, one result is that you are nominating the best quality available copy of a work.

    The ‘Fair Use’ copyright regime does appear to have spawned the open slather attitude in some minds.

    Disclaimer: I have points in one movie which will never make money, but I’d be annoyed if it had and it was stolen. (Sidenote: A friend who was editor of the first “Crocodile Dundee” was offered, but declined, points)

    1. Yes, fair use is so misunderstood. For example, I consider my screencaps & GIFs to be protected under fair use because they are used for the purpose of criticism and commentary. I’m not ripping the whole enchilada and posting it on YouTube. Further, devaluing the work of restoration teams is just mean. They work hard and they are not making a killing by any means.

      Oh my! Turning down Crocodile Dundee points would be an enormous cause for regret.

  3. Hi Fritzi, one of my favorite features of your site is your links to sources for purchasing. You have mentioned some movies that I have never heard of and provided the link, to which I went and purchased. Or, even if I have heard of them, such as your leading me to the Arthaus print of Blackmail, is very much appreciated. Long story short, you provide us with the information we need to purchase the best copy available from a legitimate source and it is appreciated.

    1. I’m glad you find them useful! I’m not as detailed as the excellent silentera.com but I try my best to send readers to the right place for a quality viewing experience.

  4. I have long thought that the speckled, scuffed, broken print is what is in the Public Domain. If one wants to watch that – enjoy. In my non-professional opinion, once somebody goes to the trouble of reassembling the pieces, cleaning it up, and putting it in a pretty box with music and maybe commentary, a whole new copyright of the recovered film has begun. The best example I can think of is Clara Bow’s “Get Your Man.” Several spots of the surviving print have faded to pure black. A “free” Public Domain film has that and all the dirt that was otherwise on that sticky nitrate print. The cleaned up film (with the blacked out spots in it) is now a new copyrighted movie.

    I think I heard that cleaning up a nitrate feature film cost $10K, but I wonder if that was really supposed to be $10K a REEL. Do you have any notion of how much it DOES cost?

    I hope that Kino makes a nice profit on the restoration of “Children of Divorce” and that they are able to stomp on anybody who tries to “share” it for free.

    Do you have any theories as to why Clara Bow’s “Maytime” was put up for free? When I heard it had been recovered from New Zealand, I was prepared to pay for it. Of course, it can still be purchased from the National Film Preservation Foundation, and doing so as well as patronizing the DVD houses that do offer restored Silents will only encourage them to do more of surgical work.

    1. Yes, I feel the same way. Public domain films are cheap or free but you get what you pay for.

      Oh goodness, I can’t imagine the price of a full restoration. It depends on exactly how much work is needed so I suppose it’s on a case-by-case basis. I am in absolute awe of the people who do this work, they are real heroes.

      Not sure about why Maytime is free but I do know that the NFPF has been making other things available like the first volume of the out of print Treasures from American Film Archives.

  5. Fritzi, I agree with your policies 100% There is a Film Group at my Unitarian church. I have given a talk to them about screenwriter/director Preston Sturges accompanied by select scenes from one of his films and a display of my collection of books, video tapes and DVDs on Sturges’s films. They keep asking me to join their group, but they do NOT buy DVDs — they watch movies on Netflix. I buy DVDs and watch the extras. I gave them an example of what they’re missing — my DVD of “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” (1947) is so loaded with extras, it took me 2 full days to get through all of them. There are two audio commentary tracks — one is devoted to the wonderful music score by Bernard Herrmann, and the commentary is by the president of the Bernard Herrmann Society — Herrmann thought it was his finest score. One does not get such enriching detail by simply watching the movie on Netflix (assuming Netflix even bothers to make available a pre-1950 film).

    1. Netflix has 1 or 2 silent films TOTAL, last I looked. Sigh.

      I’m torn because I love the convenience of streaming but, as you say, disc extras can add so much to the experience. I especially love when they dig up outtakes of silent films. (As Flicker Alley did with Behind the Door.) It’s amazing what still survives.

  6. Silentera.com is my go to website for info and links to silent DVDs. I also have accounts with KINO, Grapevine, Flicker Alley and Oldies.com.

  7. I think you hit the nail on the head with your statement “because you don’t want to cough up $20.” Hey, I’m as cheap as the next guy, and I also understand having to budget your entertainment dollars, but there are ways you can pick up good copies of films and save a few bucks at the same time – check for sales on Amazon (they seem to rotate putting their movies on sale); go on Ebay for used copies of legal films, etc. It’s known as being a smart shopper.

    Another source for free films is the public library, particularly interlibrary loan. I’ve found any number of good films, silent or otherwise, just by searching the library website or even just taking a trip to the local branch and browsing. You’d be surprised at what they have if you look hard enough (my local library had a copy of King Vidor’s first sound film Hallelujah, amazingly enough). And I have yet to find a librarian that wasn’t helpful and happy to have another patron patronize their services.

    1. Yes, agreed. Nothing in the world wrong with saving some money and taking advantage of every legal channel for viewing these films. Used, library loans and other resources are there for a reason!

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