THE MAN WHO LAUGHS legal status

From: David P. Hayes
Newsgroups: alt.movies.silent
Date: Saturday, March 07, 1998 9:18 AM

Paula J. Vitaris wrote in message <6dqh4r$o1m$>…
>I imagine there are legal and/or artistic issues involved in preventing a
>new transfer, although I don't know what they are. Perhaps someone can

To know the legal status of "The Man Who Laughs," it is necessary to understand the background of the film's release. In private email with another interested person, the following passage was brought to my attention:

A book titled "Graven Images" by Ronald V. Borst (concerning movie memorabilia), states in its Glossary, page XV:

"In our quest for accuracy, several inconsistencies were discovered. They should be briefly noted here in that they are at odds with many well-know reference works and, in many cases, the advertising material accompanying the film's release. … [first example deleted]

"While we have listed each film by its release date (as opposed to its production date, often a year earlier), this too sometimes poses difficulties. Most of the country saw the Fredric March version of *Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde* in 1932, but the film premiered on December 31, 1931, and therefore is correctly listed as a 1931 release. Similarly, Universal's silent *The Man Who Laughs* premiered in late April of 1927, was pulled from distribution, given sound effects and a musical score, and released to the majority of American theaters the following year. We have therefore listed it as a 1927 release. Conversely, Ed Wood's *Plan 9 from Outer Space," long know to have been filmed in 1956, had a single night's showing in Los Angeles in 1957 under its original title, *Grave Robbers from Outer Space,* before Distribution Corporation of America picked it up for national release in 1959. That film, because of its unique 'premiere,' and lacking a distributor at the time, is listed as a 1959 release. … [more examples deleted] …

"While most readers will feel these concerns are nothing more than nit-picking, we felt we should point out for the sticklers in the audience that many apparent inconsistencies arise not from inaccuracies in research or typographical errors but from historical fact."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


The Catalog of Copyright Entries compiled and published by the Library of Congress lists only one entry for a production of "The Man Who Laughs" from Universal (actually, Universal Jewel, in this case), and it has a copyright date of May 7, 1928. That record makes no mention of music, sound effects, nor of any form of sound, as would be expected to be the case with a sound version of the film (even if music and effects were the only sound, the copyright information would make note that both picture and sound were submitted for copyright claim). If the film was indeed distributed by Universal during 1927, the studio was very lax about securing a copyright, which it most likely would not be (usually copyrights are taken out before the film has been released). If they did delay copyright until the sound version, it's peculiar that no mention of the sound was made on the claim.

"The New York Times" reviewed the film April 28, 1928. Given that major newspapers review a film on opening day or the day after (opening day for their city) and that New York City usually is among the first places for a film to be shown, again there's reason to believe that 1928 is correct (as far as distribution, not necessarily production).

The best source for info would be exhibitors magazines from the period. My correspondent says he has two Balaban & Katz movie magazines from October 1928 promoting the film as a new release. I don't know when I'll next be near such a collection. Does anyone reading this have the multi-volume collection of reprints of the film reviews from "Variety," or even just the index volume. Both "Variety" books would be good sources, as just seeing the date of the review would tell us when the film became available for the trade press to see (usually they saw films prior to release so that information could be passed along to theater owners who had vital interest in information useful for booking).

IF it is the case that "The Man Who Laughs" was not copyrighted until more than a year after it was first shown, then the videotapes available for sale are likely not "bootleg," as copyright law as written at the time had a one-year limit on registration. Perhaps the public-domain video companies looked into this title more deeply than we've given them credit for.

David Hayes



Although the statements about the copyright registration of The Man Who Laughs given above are true, they don’t indicate another consideration affecting the validity of copyright: whether and when the work was first published.  It has been reported that The Man Who Laughs was at first distributed on a “road show” whereby at most a very few prints were exhibited, always under the control of the production company.  Distribution of the film in the normal sense of the term did not occur until 1928.  If true, Universal can use 1928 as the start date in computing copyright duration and renewal date.

Readers wanting to know more about provisions in copyright law concerning publication status can turn to the illustrations page concerning publication at and can read about court decisions on this subject at the Citations and Case Summaries page on limited publication at — paying particular attention to Patterson vs Century Productions, et al — and also to the Citations and Case Summaries page on performance is not publication at


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