Bootleg DVDs & Blu-ray releases
If you're a Hitchcock fan collecting his films on DVD & Blu-ray, chances are you want to buy the best quality transfers available.
It's not too difficult to spot the difference between these untouched film frames, all captured from two different 2003 DVD releases — one using a licensed transfer, the other not — of Hitchcock's 1936 film "Secret Agent":
The licensed transfer lets you see the sparkle in Lilli Palmer's eyes.
Hitchcock's British Films and the "Public Domain"
Unfortunately there's a lot of misinformation on the web about the copyright status of Hitchcock British films (1925-1939), with many people claiming that the films are in the Public Domain (i.e. no longer under copyright protection).
The confusion arises from the fact that the films did enter the Public Domain, but then subsequent changes to both UK and US copyright legislation restored their copyright. Some people will then claim that once a film is in the Public Domain, it cannot be removed, but court cases in Europe and the US have set a legal precedent otherwise.
The reality is that the vast majority of Hitchcock's films should be considered as being protected by copyright in all 165 countries which recognise the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works.
Hitchcock's British films were originally afforded a copyright period of 50 years under the UK Copyright Act 1911 (which was superseded by the Copyright Act 1956 & the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988). From the mid-1970s onwards, Hitchcock's films gradually began to enter the Public Domain in the UK. This meant that if you possessed a copy of the film (e.g. a 16mm print), you were free to make copies and distribute them, and this led to a boom in companies selling VHS tapes of Public Domain films in the late 1980s.
In 1993, the European Union Directive 93/98/EEC came into force and was adopted into UK law in 1995. The purpose of the Directive was to harmonise copyright protection within Europe and, crucially, the UK applied it retrospectively — this meant that any works created in the UK that had previously entered the Public Domain could potentially have their copyright status restored. This retrospective reapplication of copyright has been upheld by the European Court of Justice, for example in the case of Butterfly Music Srl v Carosello Edizioni Musicali e Discografiche Srl (1999).
Under the terms of the EU Directive, motion pictures were afforded copyright for a period of 70 years after the death of the last of the following:
- the principal director (n.b. the Directive regards the director as being the "author" of the film)
- the author of the screenplay
- the author of the dialogue
- the composer of music specifically created for use in the film
This automatically meant that all of Hitchcock's British films were placed back under copyright in the UK until at least 2050 (i.e. 70 years after Hitchcock's death). For the films written by Charles Bennett, the copyright term is until at least 2065 as Bennett died in 1995.
Under the terms of the Berne Convention, member countries normally honour the copyright of the country a work was originally created in, so those countries would also regard Hitchcock's British films as being under copyright until at least 2050.
Prior to 1989, the copyrighting process in the USA typically involved a film studio or distributor registering the work with the US Copyright Office and then re-registering it during the 28th year of protection in order to insure the copyright was renewed, otherwise the work would fall into the Public Domain. In the case of "The 39 Steps", it seems that the copyright renewal wasn't completed in the 28th year, resulting in the film entering the US Public Domain in the 1960s.
As in the UK, with the increase in sales of home video recorders in the late 1980s, many US companies began selling Public Domain films on VHS.
In 1989, the Berne Convention Implementation Act of 1988 came into force in the USA. However, Article 18 of the Berne Convention was not initially implemented, which meant that the US did not have to honour any changes to the UK copyright status of Hitchcock's British films, and so US companies were free to continue selling VHS tapes sourced from Public Domain copies of the films.
The Uruguay Round Agreements Act was signed into US law in December 1994 by President Clinton and this included a provision to restore copyright on foreign works if that work was considered under copyright in its country of origin on January 1st 1996. As the UK had implemented the European Directive retrospectively in July 1995, this meant that all of Hitchcock's British films had their copyright restored in the US.
As part of the change to US copyright law, consideration was given to companies that had benefited from selling VHS and DVD copies of films regarded as being in the Public Domain:
A reliance party is a person or business who has depended on the public domain status of the work in utilizing the work in a way that would, after restoration, be considered copyright infringement ... Once a work is restored, a person or business who is a reliance party may continue to exploit the work without liability until the restored copyright owner either serves actual notice on the reliance party or until the Copyright Office published in the Federal Register a notice of intent to restore copyright. Once either of these occurs, the reliance party has one year to sell off stock. The reliance party may not make further copies ... of the work.
So, the onus was placed on the foreign rights holder to inform either the US Copyright Office or the "reliance party" that they wished to re-assert copyright over the work in the US.
The rights holders of Hitchcock's British films at the time were Carlton Film Distributors, Ltd (now known as ITV Studios Global Entertainment) and UGC UK (now known as Studio Canal/Canal+ Image UK). Both companies submitted a "Notice of Intent to Enforce Restored Copyright" and these can be found in the list of "Notices of Restored Copyrights" on the US Copyright Office's web site:
At this point, all of the "reliance parties" were supposed to dispose of their remaining stock of Hitchcock films within 12 months — either by selling them or destroying them.
It should also be noted that cases such as Golan v Holder (2012) have upheld the restoration of copyright to foreign works previously in the public domain.
By the late 1990s, DVD sales were on the increase as people bought DVD players to replace their VHS recorders. Although US "reliance party" companies were well aware of which films had had their copyright status restored, many continued to sell DVDs of films that had previously been in the Public Domain, often at a bargain price and with a limited distribution run. It would seem they took a calculated risk and assumed that the European-based rights holders would either turn a blind eye to what they were doing or that they would regard legal action as being too costly. As these releases were unlicensed, they are bootlegs.
The current situation in the US is that dozens of companies profit from selling unlicensed DVDs of Hitchcock's British films and that the vast majority of these DVDs contain poor quality transfers — simply because those companies don't have access to the high quality film prints held by the rights holders. Even worse, some of the transfers have scenes missing — most bootleg US DVD releases of "Jamaica Inn" have 8 minutes of important footage missing. A small number of releases have even pirated transfers taken from legitimate licensed releases!
A search on Amazon for "The 39 Steps" reveals over 50 different DVDs, of which only a small number are legitimate releases containing a high-quality licensed transfer. Increasingly, the DVDs with unlicensed transfers are being sold for a higher price than the legitimate ones, making it harder for buyers to differentiate between them — these bootleg DVDs often have fake 5 star reviews and claim to be "digitally restored". A couple even boast to be 3D versions of the film!
With so many companies releasing these bootlegs, it's now unrealistic for the rights holders to take legal action against them all — although ITV Studios Global Entertainment has recently begun issuing cease and desist letters to web sites, such as the Internet Archive, that host copies of Hitchcock films to download.
Licensed US releases
In Europe, all of the surviving major British Hitchcock films (with the exception of "Easy Virtue", which only exists as 16mm projection prints) have now been officially released on DVD — often with excellent transfers — and very few bootleg DVDs are to be found on the Amazon UK web site (those which are listed are usually US bootlegs being resold).
In the US, the following DVDs, Blu-rays and box sets contain officially licensed transfers of Hitchcock's British films:
- all releases from The Criterion Collection
- Alfred Hitchcock: 3-Disc Collector's Edition - Lionsgate (USA, 2007)
- Jamaica Inn (1939) - Image Entertainment (USA, 1999)
- Alfred Hitchcock Premiere Collection - MGM Home Entertainment (USA, 2008)
- The Lodger (1927) - MGM Home Entertainment (USA, 2008)
- Sabotage (1936) - MGM Home Entertainment (USA, 2008)
- Young and Innocent (1937) - MGM Home Entertainment (USA, 2008)
All of the above releases include details like this on their packaging:
All other US DVD releases of Hitchcock British films should be treated with caution as unlicensed bootlegs containing poor quality transfers, especially if they are distributed by any of the following companies or if the disc is advertised on Amazon as being "manufactured on demand using DVD-R recordable media":
- AFA Entertainment
- Alpha Video
- BCI Eclipse
- Big D Films / Big D Productions
- Brentwood Home Video
- Buggle's Classics
- Cascadia Entertainment
- CineRidge Entertainment
- Craze Digital
- Delta / Delta Entertainment
- Desert Island Films
- Diamond Entertainment
- Digiview Entertainment
- Direct Source Label
- Disc Plaza Entertainment
- EastWest / East West Entertainment
- Echo Bridge Home Entertainment
- Ent. Software
- Entertainment One
- Firecake Entertainment (FCE)
- Genius Entertainment
- GI Studios
- Greatest Sports Legends
- Laserlight Video
- Madacy Entertainment
- Mill Creek Entertainment
- Miracle Pictures
- Osiris Entertainment
- PD Productions
- Platinum Disc Corporation
- Real 3D
- Reel Classic Films (RCF)
- Ryko Distribution
- Star One (Korea)
- St. Clair Vision
- Sunset Home Visual Entertainment (SHE)
- Synergy Entertainment
- TGG Direct
- TMW Media Group
- Timeless DVD
- Treasure Box Collection
- Triad Productions
- Unicorn Video
- Vintage Home Entertainment
- Waterfall Home Entertainment Ltd
- Westlake Entertainment Group
- Whirlwind Media
The fact that so few of Hitchcock's British films have been released officially in the US is a stark indication of how unprofitable it is for legitimate companies to compete in a marketplace flooded with bootlegs. As a consumer, it is clearly in your benefit to support these licensed releases as a way of encouraging further such releases by those companies.