A Trip to the Moon

January 5, 2010 | By

George MeliesA Trip to the Moon was made in 1902 by the French magician turned filmmaker Georges Méliès.  Between 1896 and 1913, he directed over 500 films many of them using stop action camera techniques to reveal a sense of magic.


A Trip to the Moon was produced in his Star Film studio.  Méliès released both back and white and tinted prints of the film.

His movie was a hit in Europe and the United States.  Unfortunately, Méliès did not profit from his film’s showing in the US.  Agents of Thomas Edison had acquired a copy of the film and then released the film in the US earning significant profits for Edison.  No money was ever paid to Méliès.

This illegal distribution of a film by Edison was ironic.  Edison was fastidious in copyrighting not only his inventions, but his films as well.  Sad commentary on an individual such as Edison who was so keen to protect his own intellectually property yet so chevalier in profiting from the works of a fellow filmmaker.

Protection of moving pictures by copyright was also in upheaval at this time.  Prior to 1912, there was no mechanism to directly copyright a moving picture.    Moving picture company relied on copyright law related to still photograph. That is, the Edison Company and other film companies regularly printed each frame of a film on photographic paper.  All the frame images were then assembled on a roll and presented to obtain copyright protection for the entire body of work.

In January 1903, this process of copyrighting a film, however, was challenged in court by one of Edison’s rivals, Siegmund Lubin founder of the Lubin Manufacturing Company.  Lubin argued the each photographic image on the roll of photographs required its own separate copyright.  The court agreed with Lubin and placed the process of protecting the intellectual rights of a moving picture in doubt.

Edison appealed and in April 1903, this initial court ruling was overturned in stating,

“When Congress in recognition of the photographic art saw fit in 1865 to amend the Act of 1831 (13 Stat 540), and extend copyright protection to a photograph or negative, it is not to be presumed it thought such art could not progress and that no protection was to be afforded such progress. It must have recognized there would be change and advance in making photographs just as there have been in making books, printing chromos and other subjects of copyright protection.”

Technology in the early 20th century was clearly pressing ahead of 19th century legal precedent.  Such trends continue today.

As for Georges Méliès, his brother Gaston arrived in the US to represent his brothers interest.  Gaston noted, “We are prepared and determined energetically to pursue all counterfeiters and pirates. We will not speak twice, we will act.”

Gaston was also keenly interest in acquiring profits Edison was reaping from the legal purchase, import, duplication and distribution of European films.

The film careers of the Méliès brothers, however, ended in 1913.  Changes in taste and new business models for film production and distribution left the brothers bankrupt.

Filed in: Honored Tradition

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