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How to Discover Rights-Free Materials For Your Film: Two Examples

By Bonnie Rowan

A 1943 NYWTS photo of Frank Sinatra mobbed by fans, found in the Library of Congress. The photo's cutline reads: "It took all these Pasadena, Calif., policemen, if you can believe the story, to rescue singer Frank Sinatra from the hordes of fans that beseiged him when he got off his train at Pasadena. Looks like that old black magic is really taking hold in California."

We who live in the Washington DC area have access to the world’s largest rights-free collections of film and photos, and they are usually available to view within minutes. With ongoing library digitization projects and searchable databases, you may assume that you, sitting at your computers around the world, also have access to this material for your documentary films. The secret is the institutions that hold them don’t tell you that only a tiny fraction of these treasures are available online.

After more than 30 years of working with these collections and hundreds of archival research credits on films, exhibitions, and publications, I am astonished that folks generally believe they can “do the research” at the Library of Congress and the National Archives from their home offices. I will focus on just two of these collections: Moving Pictures and Video at the National Archives (NARA) and Prints & Photographs at the Library of Congress (LC). Most archival filmmakers searching for visual material from the 20th century will find a world of possibilities in these two collections. 

What Makes It Rights-Free? 

But first, a brief explanation of why most of these materials are rights-free. The U.S. federal government, which has produced vast numbers of films and photos, cannot copyright government-produced materials (17 U.S.C. 105). The LC and NARA are part of the federal government and hold government-produced materials. They also have been given or have purchased very large rights-free collections. In addition, they hold materials that were never copyrighted or whose protection has lapsed. 

Perhaps, best of all, when it comes to your budget, there are no licensing fees. Many institutions hold rights-free materials, but to use them, there are licensing fees and reproductions costs. LC and NARA do not charge licensing fees; government regulations moderate their reproduction costs.

However, when sifting through these collections for documentary film materials, be warned there are also parts of these collections that are not rights-free. At the LC, there are large numbers of deposits that are still within their copyright terms. At NARA, many films are acquired by the government with valid copyrights or underlying rights. LC and NARA also have materials with a deed of gift with restrictions on use (and the making of reference copies). 

In all cases, these institutions cannot guarantee the rights status of what they hold and make available to you, but they can provide all of the rights information that they know. Their rules usually allow you to make reference copies and order high-quality copies. If there's a question about clearance issues, you are ultimately responsible for decisions about obtaining appropriate copyright permissions and paying licensing fees. 

Moving Pictures and Video at the National Archives

The Moving Images and Sound Branch of the National Archives (Archives II) in College Park, Maryland, holds about a million items. The government-produced collections of edited films and outtakes focus on wars from World War I to Vietnam, the Great Depression, agriculture, National Parks, and overseas aid and information programs. Nongovernment collections include huge numbers of newsreels and outtakes, early educational films, some television interview series, and many small donations from individuals. Only eight percent of their film and video holdings can be viewed online. The NARA database for this collection is on the item level, meaning 200,000 are described, but just 35,000 have a viewing copy as part of their database description. About 5,000 additional viewing copies can be found on the NARA YouTube channel. Although 40,000 sounds like a lot of possibilities, the viewable films tend to be government productions. The most popular collection for filmmakers is the 1929–1967 Universal Newsreels (given to NARA with all rights). While about 4,000 newsreels exist online, you can view just 86 of them and none of the almost 1,000 hours of outtakes.

The mission of the National Archives is to collect and store all of the significant records of the federal government and make them available for a wide range of uses. NARA has made a huge percentage of its vast motion picture and video collection available to researchers who can view and make copies in the College Park facility. Their research rooms and policies (even during COVID-19) are remarkably convenient. They provide a very informed staff, equipment to view and copy items, and vast numbers of items on the shelves and computers in the room or via a prompt delivery service from the stacks. You can order excellent copies through vendor labs.

Prints and Photographs at the Library of Congress

The Prints and Photographs (P&P) division of the Library of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, holds about 17 million images. Their website says that 95 percent of their holdings are described in their database, but only about 10 percent of them can be viewed online, and many of those are just low-resolution thumbnail files. 

The LC database is great when you can find what you need and download a copy good enough to use. However, P&P’s New York World-Telegram and Sun (NYWTS) newspaper photo morgue (covering the 1920s–60s) has about one million photos, but just 7,364 are viewable from their database. For example, there is a great 1943 NYWTS photo of Frank Sinatra mobbed by fans. If you are viewing the online database, you can look at a thumbnail and download a tiny 34 KB file. But if you are in the reading room, you can download a 156 MB file, request an entire folder of Frank Sinatra photos from NYWTS, and find a picture of a cute three-year-old Frankie in a Look magazine stock collection. You will have to request those last two items from another location and return in a few days to see them. But waiting a few days is rare since most photos are either on the LC computers, in files in the reading room, or can be pulled from the stacks. 

The staff is the most valuable resource in the room, and their policies make finding great images reasonable. You can make quick reference copies, download digital files, and place orders for dense scans through their photoduplication service.

Other Resources at These Two Institutions

It is important to note that although I chose to spotlight the moving images at NARA because of the abundance of rights-free titles and photos at LC because there is such a wide range of subjects and the database is excellent, each of these institutions has quite fabulous collections of both moving images and photos as well as recorded sound. For example, NARA Stills has the New York Times Paris Bureau Collection (1900–1950) with 211,000 images. LC Motion Pictures has the Paper Print Collection (1894–1912) with more than 3,000 titles. The librarians and archivists in these research rooms are particularly helpful for identifying additional collections. 

How to Prepare for a Visit

Rules are changing as institutions move out of COVID-19 mode. As I write this article, NARA requires a reservation via Eventbrite. You can contact NARA via the email address for the latest information. LC does not require a reservation, but they offer the chance to ensure room for you. You can contact LC via the Ask A Librarian feature on their website.

Both institutions require that you get a researcher card when you arrive at the site. For this, you need a driver’s license or passport. For LC, also bring a flash drive for downloads and a smartphone or camera to make hand-held reference copies. For NARA, preparation is more complicated as moving images are in many formats. To be sure you are able to make reference copies, you may need a flash drive, a video camera, a laptop with an analog-to-digital conversion device, or blank DVDs.

You should do preliminary research before you arrive. Bring lists or notes on loose sheets of paper or your laptop. No bound books or notebooks are allowed in the research rooms. There are computers in each facility that you can use to search the LC and NARA databases and access the internet.

Is There a Downside?

There are a few downsides to using these rights-free collections. For one, the bulk of both of these collections focuses on the 20th century. LC’s P&P has some very early photos, a huge Civil War photo collection, and drawers full of stereoscopic images from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s as well as endless early prints. Though rich in pre-20th century images, their collections after 2000, with few exceptions, are all copyrighted. The most outstanding exception is the work of professional photographer Carol Highsmith, who generously donated about 67,000 high-density copies of her color photos from across the U.S. NARA’s film holdings begin early in the 20th century with the Ford Collection of U.S. geography and manufacturing materials and fully digitized WWI collections. But for films made after 2000, the rights-free pickings are primarily US Government titles.

Another downside is that NARA and LC are complex collections, and unlike stock houses, these institutions are not set up for a quick turnaround. The reference copies vary greatly in quality and are often not good enough for documentary production. The LC has its own duplication service, NARA has excellent vendor labs, and lab costs are pretty reasonable. Plan ahead, work with a reputable lab, and remember, miracles do happen.

But the greatest challenge is that you must be physically in the research and reading rooms in Washington, DC, even to come close to taking full advantage of these treasures. In the past, filmmakers came from around the world to use these materials. The number of researchers in these facilities has dwindled over the past several years, even before COVID-19. When I find myself in an almost empty research room, I worry that the hours will be further cut and these fantastic collections, which belong to all of us, will not be used in documentaries, limiting our retellings and uncoverings of the past. So, please come to Washington, stay with friends, see the sights, and discover the NARA and LC research rooms.

Can’t Come to Washington, DC?

If you are in Beirut, Butte, or even Baltimore, and traveling all this way is impossible or the best way to use your funds, consider hiring a local professional archival researcher. Though I believe the filmmaker is the best researcher for their project, hiring a professional has many advantages. There is a cluster of local researchers who, frankly, are the smartest folks I know and who have decades of experience with these collections. They usually have huge databases of materials that they spotted as they went through moving and still images for previous projects. They understand current copyright law and the status of the materials they locate for you. They know the technology and can speed things along with the vendors. The right researcher will make your production better and more accurate. They can save you far more than the fees they charge.

To find the best professional researcher, ask other archival filmmakers for recommendations or look up the credits on archival documentaries you admire. You’re searching for an “on-site” researcher, and when you approach one, you should ask for a list of their previous projects. You may be tempted to use NARA’s list of moving image researchers, but since it is open to anyone to add their name, it’s not very helpful. LC‘s list of stills researchers is a better resource. 

Whether you come to Washington in person or hire a local pro, these magnificent time machines are waiting.

With a graduate degree in film, Bonnie Rowan came from Wisconsin to work for the US Information Agency but soon was teaching film studies and production as an assistant professor at Towson University in Baltimore. Rowan has credits on over 500 productions and was nominated for an Emmy for research for The Rape of Europe and The Mine Wars.