Meet Jeromie Whalen. By day, he works as a project coordinator for a non-profit media center. By night, he’s trying to make it easier for everyone to legally find free movies online. Feel free to thank him when you take a break from watching movies.
Specifically, Whalen has created a YouTube channel called Freemeo Movies that plays host to full-length, public domain movies. All ad-free. I was planning on getting an exact number for this piece but, well, there a ton of them — almost exclusively from the 30s and 40s. Some have thousands of views, some only 3. Some are famous flicks featuring actors like Cary Grant and John Wayne, others are sprung from cinema’s oubliette to have a new shot at life. All of them deserve a chance to be seen.
As the story hit Reddit, Whalen had already spent a ton of personal time finding films, ensuring their copyright status and then uploading them with complete profiles and poster art. This is the Lord’s work, and naturally I had some questions. Fortunately, Whalen offered some insights into why he’s doing it and what we need to know when it comes to enjoying (and using) stuff in the public domain.
What compelled you to take on a project like this?
Freemeo was born out of a mixture of frustration and idealism. Working at a television station which offers 24/7 programming, I would often find myself looking for entertaining films to share with the community and fill in the gaps between locally produced shows. The problem was, however, that although there is a lot of content freely offered for viewing online, the rebroadcasting of content comes with many rules and regulations which need to be adhered to.
My search for distribution free videos ultimately led me to the site Archive.org, which acts as a library for license-free media from thousands of contributors around the world. As I began to dig around the digital shelves of The Internet Archive, I grew more and more frustrated with the website’s layout, search-ability, and the inability to distinguish between quality content and arbitrary archived uploads.
The Internet Archive is an absolutely terrific resource and offered me a great deal of content to work with, but I needed to organize the shelves a little bit. Freemeo was created to do just that: offer a widely accessible way to quickly browse through well-produced, license free films free of charge.
How did you search for them?
Searching for the films was a pretty simple endeavor; there are many sites that have compilations of public domain movies that are offered free for download, but typically bombard you with Amazon Partner links and ways to purchase hard drives full of the movies. I matched these linked movies with content I found on The Internet Archive and other sites, did brief checks into the legitimacy of the claims of the films being public domain, and started filling up a hard drive with downloads. Needless to say, my Internet Service Provider did not like me for a while.
What’s important to know about the public domain status of these movies?
The laws are not as cut and dry as some people tend to think. Public domain movies are sometimes a tricky thing and can potentially come with strings attached. A movie may fall into the public domain, for example, yet music used within the film or the script used to produce it may be still be under copyright and thus prevent reproduction or redistribution.
In another example, the Three Stooges film Disorder in the Court fell into the public domain and is freely available (after a mistake by the copyright holder to submit the proper paperwork for the piece), but the Three Stooges as an comedic entity themselves are still under copyright.
Additionally, even slight changes made by an individual to a public domain work can allow for the creation of a new, copyrighted piece. For example, the digital restoration of an old film would allow for a company or individual to hold copyright over the newly restored version.
Another thing to note is that when the components of a film fall entirely into the public domain, there is free reign for an individual to do whatever they want with it. The often used “fair use” argument is not needed: an individual can recreate, adapt, or freely distribute the work for both commercial and non-commercial purposes.
What’s your favorite movie you’ve found so far for Freemeo?
One of my favorite films that I have archived is Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, a children’s sci-fi film directed by Nick Webster in 1964. It has a great feeling of conservative ideals of earlier generations coming head-to-head with the psychedelic imagination of the counterculture of the 60’s, all mixed down and subdued into a low-budget children’s tale. It has a 1 star rating on both IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes, but thinking of it in the context of history and pop culture, it can be a nice movie to settle down to for a not-so-serious watch.
What’s your ultimate goal with the project?
Ideally, I hope that these films are not simply sitting on a digital bookshelf collecting dust, but rather that these pieces of history are out in the open and contributing to meaningful discussions on cultural perspectives, stereotypes, production and acting methods, and any other windows into the past or topics of conversation that they offer.
Most importantly, I hope that people get some enjoyment from the nostalgic memories or the great stories that are told in these movies. A couple months ago I received a comment from an old man (I visited his Youtube page where he uploads videos of himself) on a film saying “That is my Uncle Dudey, also known as Danny Webb. May he rest in peace.” It felt good knowing that this aging man could hop on a computer, search for his uncle and be taken back to his childhood.
As we get older, I hope these films withstand the test of time, and ultimately I hope that what I am doing is helping make these memories and films last.