I have always found copyright law pertaining to the public domain in the United States somewhat baffling. Public domain refers to works that are no longer protected by copyright and are thus considered part of the “public domain.” There are countless examples of television shows with all or some episodes in the public domain. These can be found on relatively cheap DVD sets from companies like Passport Entertainment, Timeless Media Group or Mill Creek Entertainment.
Episodes of many classic shows, like Bonanza, The Andy Griffith Show and The Beverly Hillbillies, are public domain due to negligence. Their copyright status was never renewed. According to Cornell University’s Copyright Information Center, works (or television episodes) originally published (or broadcast) between 1923 and 1963 with a copyright notice are in the public domain only if the copyright was not renewed. If it was, those episodes are under copyright for 95 years after they were first broadcast. In the unlikely event that they were broadcast without a copyright notice, they are also in the public domain.
Works published between 1964 and 1977 with a notice are copyrighted for 95 years after their publication date. So imagine how confused I was when I was researching Pistols ‘n’ Petticoats yesterday and discovered that several episodes were released on DVD by Echo Bridge Home Entertainment in 2005 as part of TV Classic Westerns Volume 6 (alongside episodes of Frontier Doctor). Pistols ‘n’ Petticoats was originally broadcast by CBS during the 1966-1967 season.
Unless Pistols ‘n’ Petticoats was broadcast without a copyright notice — and I find it incredibly hard to believe that it was — it shouldn’t be in the public domain. That’s my understanding, at least. Frontier Doctor, on the other hand, was syndicated during the 1958-1959 season and thus could easily be in the public domain if its copyright wasn’t renewed. Of course, it’s possible I’m missing an important element in this equation and Pistols ‘n’ Petticoats is in the public domain. I don’t know. I’m not a lawyer.
Public domain is a good thing. Without it, many shows from the 1950s would never be released on DVD. I just wish it was clearer. As for Pistols ‘n’ Petticoats, the really strange thing is that the episodes released on DVD are in black and white despite the fact that the show was broadcast in color. Could the color episodes have been copyrighted while the black and white episodes aren’t? Or are the only available prints in black and white? Several people have asked me to write about Pistols ‘n’ Petticoats and I’d like to do just that. But without any color footage to present, I’m not sure I could do the show justice.
If anyone has access to color episodes of Pistols ‘n’ Petticoats, please let me know. Supposedly, several episodes were edited into a movie called The Far Out West. Perhaps copies of that are floating around. Or, maybe the 1966 CBS Fall Preview includes color footage of Pistols ‘n’ Petticoats. In any case, I don’t have access to any episodes of the series, including the black and white ones on DVD. But a lot of people seem to be interested in the show.