Public Domain Video Footage for Online Video Marketing

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If you’re looking for some new creative ideas on buzz marketing with online video, check out the Internet Archive, a virtual digital library of public domain (i.e., free) video content. While its primarily used for research and educational purposes, some companies are drawing from its inventory to create new movie clips for entertainment pieces associated with their own brand.

While there are many stock footage companies today that provide both royalty-free and licensed negotiated video footage for editorial and commercial use, only the Internet Archive provides free access to all of their video footage.

The Internet Archive program explains on their website that all footage is meant for education, scholarship, and historical preservation of “cultural artifacts.” Yet my own ReelSEO podcast show producer, Bob Sandidge, forwarded me an email he received from one company, Video Ideas Productions, that built their own promotional video piece entirely from clips taken from this archive. They used the Thanksgiving theme, picked a fun title that prominently featured their own brand (to show that they were the author of the “new” work), and send it as an email blast to everyone in their database. (Below is the screenshot of their email promo.)

Jerry Waddell, President & Co-Owner Video Ideas Productions, said that in just the first hour after the email blast, they received 20 responses (all positive), and considerably quicker and higher response rates than their previous email pieces. “We just thought about families and the holidays, and getting together.” Says Jerry, and added that their word-of-mouth marketing success has inspired them with plans to create their own YouTube site and build similar video pieces.

while Bob and I agreed that the video is perhaps too lengthy, and I personally thought that the voiceovers all sounded like they were coming from the same person (and probably an older guy who couldn’t do a good child or female impersonation), its easy to see how a video piece like this makes for a good “holiday card” that can be shared both by email and shared elsewhere online.

So here’s what I see as the advantages and challenges with using public domain video for online marketing:

Advantages of public domain video for online marketing

  • Access – Collection is free and open for everyone, and many of the movies are available for download
  • Savings – Footage is royalty-free and license-free, and you don’t incur any shooting costs of your own.
  • Safe sell – Public domain footage can lend itself well to humor, not just around holiday themes but pretty much any familiar themes to your target customers.
  • Familiarity – Much of the footage can have a vintage, familiar feel, even with no-name actors.
  • Size – The Internet Archive’s Moving Images section contains over 138,000 digital videos which range from full-length films and movie scenes, to daily alternative news broadcasts, to government films, to videos of every genre uploaded by Archive users.
  • Searchability – It has decent directory listings and an all-purpose search function that can filter by video type.
  • Passable file quality – and a good portion are of decent quality for usage and editing by both consumer-grade and commercial-grade video editing software.

Disadvantages of public domain video for online marketing

  • Lack of freshness – Most of the video content is vintages stuff. I.e., old.
  • Audio quality issues – Sometimes the audio doesn’t sync with the video. (Not a problem if you’re just looking for video-only content, though.)
  • Video quality issues – not all footage lends itself to professional video editing. You may be stuck with low-res formats.
  • Potential legal issues – this is a whole section unto itself!

Potential legal issues with public domain footage in online video marketing

Even though all of the video content on the Internet Archive is free to watch and download, that certainly doesn’t mean that no one owns the rights to the original movies; and, it certainly can’t be assumed that another company who takes the footage and makes a new commercial piece out of it now owns all rights to the content.

Here is what the Internet Archive says on the issue of usage and rights on its FAQs section:

“Many of the movies and collections are licensed with Creative Commons Licenses… If there’s no license, you should assume that the only thing you’re allowed to do with it is watch it.”

I then brought up this issue with a licensing agent of studio-produced motion picture content, who secures legal rights and clearances for projects involving the usage of that footage.

“If it’s public domain and there are no talent or trademark infringements, then you can pretty much use it for any reason. But if there are talent/actors (even if deceased), and if it is for promotional usage, then the actor or the estate of the actor should be approached to provide permission and a permission fee paid.” She said.

However, when I showed her the holiday greeting (Thanksgiving) piece from Video Ideas, she said that this is where things get complicated.

“Public domain means the copyright has expired, so you can’t just put your company name on it as if you now own copyright. However, because this is all public domain footage and is edited together and re- recorded with new voice-overs, it can be considered an original piece of work. But they still shouldn’t be able to claim copyright ownership, even though they created the ‘new’ version.” She said.

I responded that this would seem to suggest that someone else can take the video and use it themselves for the same purposes, and the original producer of the public domain compilation (Video Ideas) might have a dififcult time claiming copyright infringement. But that is where the Catch-22 comes into play

“They would have a legal case if someone ‘ripped’ their video exactly and used it and claimed it was theirs and not Video Ideas.” She said. “However, Video Ideas cannot enforce copyright since the original footage is public domain.  But they could claim infringement based on a new concept utilizing public domain footage – not using the footage exactly as it was originally intended. They are altering it by adding voiceovers and putting random clips together that weren’t meant to be together originally, so in essence it’s a new concept.”

She added that while in this particular case, the actors (or heirs) could possibly file a claim, it would be highly unlikely they would be successful, since the piece is not specifically ‘promotional’; and there doesn’t appear to be any ‘famous’ actors were in the clips. “There could be implied endorsement, but that would be highly unlikely.”

So Video Ideas may have used the video content in a appropriate manner – from the selection of footage, to editing process, to presentation, choice of promotion, and the distribution model.

Tips for using public domain footage at the Internet Archive

  • Popular search – Check out the most popular downloaded items that appear in the right-hand sidebar. If something is already popular, that means more people may either already be familiar with it, or it has the potential to be very effective with word-of-mouth marketing to a new audience.
  • Keyword search – pick a topic or theme that relates to your customers’ needs or situation. Then do a search based on those targeted keywords in each genre under “Moving Images.”
  • Higher file quality – Work with MPEG-quality video or higher (MPEG1, MPEG2, MPEG4, DV) You can re-encode the footage into any current video editing software. Ideally you want to work with MPEG4 files, which are typically the highest bitrate you’ll find.
  • Check on the licensing. The Internet Archive explains the movie has a Creative Commons License, it will be noted on the movie’s detail page. Click on that link to find out exactly what the permissions are for that particular film. Some films may have the contact information listed for the filmmaker. If the information is provided, feel free to contact the filmmaker or organization the film comes from.

Also if you are going to use the footage for business purposes, consider making a voluntary monetary donation to the archive. (It’s tax-deductible!)


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