I came across this interesting nugget in an article about the Library of Congress’ efforts to permanently archive 120 years of film history. Ken Weissman, supervisor of the Library’s film preservation laboratory, has started a pilot program to once and for all fix a mistake caused by the agency’s lousy interpretation of copyright law more than a century ago.
The Library started archiving films in 1894, and over the next two decades, accumulated some 3,000 movies such as The Great Train Robbery and A Trip to the Moon. But the Library’s interpretation of the then-current copyright law led it to conclude that these newfangled motion pictures were nothing more than a series of still photographs — which meant the copyright rules for still photographs also applied to movies.
Because of that excessively literal reading of the law, “if you wanted to copyright a motion picture, you had to provide the Library of Congress two copies of the film, and they had to be on paper. Not film.”
So filmmakers made contact prints of their movies onto extremely long pieces of photographic paper, about the size of 35mm film. As you might guess, those paper films didn’t project very well, so they sat, unusable, in the Library’s vaults for decades. Every couple of years, a staffer would rediscover them and try to come up with a way to transfer them back to film, but with little success. “The images are alternately soft, or fuzzy, or very shaky,” Weissman wrote. “There was also no way to accurately register the images.”
But about five or six years ago, archivists began looking at using the digital restoration and preservation technologies now standard in Hollywood to scan the paper prints, which are said to be well-preserved and in some cases, the only copies in existence. The Library plans to use computers to straighten out and stabilize the scanned frames, and then transfer the images to film.
Weissman said his lab’s first stab at digitizing the prints — making a high-resolution scan of 2,000 pixels — was somewhat underwhelming. So the Library will soon try to double the resolution and make 4,000-pixel scans.
“That’s one part of the pilot program, to figure out exactly how to do it,” Weissman wrote. “It’s more of a theoretical workflow because we haven’t practically implemented it yet, but we’re getting close.”