This article is available exclusively to subscribers.

Become a subscriber today to continue reading. 

For decades, movie studios and copyright holders have argued over the issue of whether movies can be copyrighted. 

The two sides have battled for decades over whether movies should be considered protected works or not. 

But a new study by the Institute for Policy Studies, a conservative think tank, and the National Film Preservation Board (NFPB) suggests the debate has shifted. 

It concludes that the issue isn’t so much about copyright law but about copyright policy.

“The copyright debate is much more about copyright than it is about whether movies are copyrighted,” says David M. Sperling, the study’s lead author.

“The copyright issue is really a debate about whether copyright is the way to protect artists, and whether the law ought to protect copyright holders as well.”

The study was based on a survey of 1,100 moviegoers who viewed a wide range of movies during the 2012 movie season. 

About 30% of the respondents identified themselves as Republicans and nearly 40% as Democrats. 

Among those Republicans, nearly half (48%) said that movies shouldn’t be protected, compared to only 5% of Democrats and 6% of independents. 

Those numbers are somewhat different from other surveys, where most of the Republicans who said movies shouldn, in fact, be protected are Democrats.

The NFPB survey also asked respondents if they thought movies should not be protected.

The survey found that nearly half of Republicans (49%) and independents (48% of Republicans) agreed that movies should have to be copyrighted to be protected by the law. 

There was a big gender gap in the answers: about a third (34%) of men said movies should probably not be copyrighted, compared with about a quarter (25%) of women. 

Sperling says the survey shows that while the copyright issue has long been settled, the debate over whether movie copyright should be expanded has shifted, in part, because of the shift in public opinion. 

“We’ve moved from a position where the public felt like movies are protected, to now the public is starting to say that movies are not protected,” he says. 

In addition to Sperlin and his team, the NFPB also interviewed members of Congress and law enforcement officials from around the country. 

Some of the questions were similar to those the survey asked. 

How do you feel about movie copyright?

The survey asked respondents how they felt about the copyright protections in the movies they watched.

 Almost half (47%) of Republicans and independents said they felt that movies have been unfairly infringed, while just 19% of liberals said movies have not been infringed. 

Can you think of a time when you watched a movie and thought, “I wish the movie didn’t exist?”

The NFPB asked respondents to tell the story of a movie that they loved and found particularly interesting or enjoyable. 

What do you think was the most important thing in a movie?

In the NFBP survey, nearly two-thirds (64%) of Democrats, 45% of Independents and 39% of those Republicans who identified themselves on the political spectrum agreed that movie copyright laws should not protect movies, while fewer (36%) of independents agreed.

But there was a slight partisan gap. 

Only 31% of Republican respondents agreed that the laws should protect movies while 51% of Democratic respondents agreed. 

When asked if they agreed with the statement, “There should be more movie-related movies made,” fewer Republicans (24%) and Democrats (23%) agreed, compared. 

Do you think that movies that are not copyrighted should have the right to be made?

Sperlin says the NFP survey shows there is broad agreement that movies with no copyright protection should not have the rights to be released.

“The NFP shows that people are fairly well aware that there is a difference between what movies should or shouldn’t have,” he adds.

“But they still believe that they should have that right to make movies, and they still think that that is the right thing to do.”

So, if the public does decide to start thinking about whether or not movies should, in and of itself, have rights, then that is going to be an important change for the way we deal with the copyright debate.” 

The study is available here: