How copyright pirates saved a classic horror film.

Through a convoluted series of links starting at Boing Boing I came across a fascinating article on how the classic silent horror film Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horrors was almost wiped out because it violated the copyright on Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The only reason it still exists to be enjoyed today is because of people who copied and shared it. The pre-cursors to today’s file sharing pirates.

Steampunk: The Saga of Nosferatu

Unfortunately for Prana, this film was too thinly veiled, and Florence Stoker, widow of the late Bram Stoker proceeded to join the British Incorporated Society of Authors, whose lawyers then took up the case for her. Stoker was seeking restitution since Prana neither asked permission to adapt Dracula, nor paid her any money for it. However, Stoker and the BISA were not the only people pursuing Prana-Films: Prana was a financial sinking ship and was being hunted down by creditors as well. Just as the BISA sued Prana, it went into receivership and all materials and debts were taken over by the Deutsch-Amerikansch Film Union. The BISA then pursued the Film Union and demanded that all copies of Nosferatu be handed over to Florence Stoker for destruction. In July 1925, the issue was settled and all known copies of Nosferatu were handed over to Stoker, and destroyed.

Or so Stoker thought. In October of that year, the Film Society in England asked her to endorse a classic film festival, and first on the list was the infamous Nosferatu. Stoker was furious and demanded that the Society give her their copy so that she could destroy it as well. The Film Society refused and the legalities followed. By 1928, Universal Pictures owned the copyright for Dracula, and therefore, all adaptations of it, including Nosferatu. Initially, Universal allowed the Film Society to keep the print, but after pressure from Florence Stoker, they acquired the print and it joined its kin in 1929. Then came a sudden spurt of American copies of the film, under the name Nosferatu the Vampire, but Universal had them all destroyed in 1930. It finally seemed as though this pesky film had met its end.

It’s an interesting read and I recommend it to anyone interested in the issue. It’s hardly justification for the rampant file sharing of today, but it does illustrate how much more complicated the issue of copyright really is.

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