CBR has reminded fans of a Star Trek rumor from the 1970s.
Fans of a certain age may remember a time when Star Trek ran on syndication in the 70s. That syndication run allowed the series to find new life in theaters and in a reboot series called The Next Generation. None of that would’ve been possible due to syndication, as the first run of the series was actually a rating’s loser at the time of its airing. While the numbers would look great today, yes, at the time they weren’t overly impressive.
It was the syndication figures that grew the audience. It was also then that caused some debate about whether or not Star Trek was considered to have fallen into the public domain. For those unfamiliar with the public domain, it’s basically any piece of work (music, books, movies, etc) that end up having their copyrights lapse. The law pertaining the copyright has changed extensively over the years in order to protect the rights holders, but in the 70s things were wildly different.
In the CBR column, they explain that due to a combination of no copyright notice on syndicated reruns of the original series and VHS tapes of specific episodes being produced, this caused some to believe that the show had hit the public domain. As Brian Cronin writes, that wasn’t the case.
"There was an implied belief that a company that was licensing its work out to syndication did not want said work to enter the public domain, and thus the shows were considered protected and a lack of notice in syndication would not be enough for the episodes to enter the public domain."
The Star Trek/public domain rumor is returning at a convenient time
The one thing that is largely missing in Cronin’s well-put-together piece is a bit of a tidbit that seems to have been forgotten about. He references the original Copyright Act of 1909, an act that has been reworked and revamped more times than a waiting room on a typical Tuesday at a Hollywood plastic surgeon’s office. The original law, which is well and dead, put copyright claims at no longer than 56 years before a piece of property would then fall into the public domain.
That means that 2022 would’ve been the year that Trek entered the public domain, as it was launched initially in 1966.
Some fans won’t like that tidbit, but some fans will. For while it keeps Trek in the hands of creative types that haven’t been the most warmly received, it does protect other works as well. For better or worse.