Best Public Domain Movies Online You Can Watch Right Now - Featured

There are many great films that are part of the public domain. This also means that in many cases you, yes you, can use these films for your own purposes. With many works in the public domain, you are free to edit, remake, or even use the characters in your own stories. Be sure to research the specific film beforehand if you plan to do this though, as it is possible for a film to be in the public domain while the screenplay remains copyrighted; there are a number of nuances to take into account.

Open domain movies

Why are certain films public domain?

There are a few different reasons why a particular creative work may wind up in the public domain, the most common of which being the expiration of their copyright.

These days, it is easier than ever to attain copyright over your own intellectual property. Before 1978, if a film failed to include notice of copyright within its titles, then the film automatically entered the public domain. You might be surprised to learn just how many films became public domain works due to this technicality.

In fact, some of the films on this very list entered the public domain as a result of technical mistakes such as accidentally leaving out a word in their copyright notice, or misspelling their declaration of ownership.

Current copyright can last for 70 years after the death of the creator, 95 years after the date of publication, or 120 years after the date of creation, whichever comes first. The public domain is a complex topic. For a more extensive explanation, here's more on how the public domain works

And now, without further ado, let’s get to the list.

Copyright free movies

30. Manos: The Hands of Fate (1968)

MST3K covers Manos: THe Hands of Fate

Our first film is not a “good” film, traditionally speaking. It is in fact so bad that it becomes highly enjoyable. Manos: The Hands of Fate was released in 1968, and the filmmakers failed to display the copyright notice that was required for all films before 1978. This surprisingly common mistake led to the film entering the public domain by default.

Public domain films

Conclusion

You might get the best experience out of Manos: The Hands of Fate by watching with a group of friends or by laughing along to one of the humorous commentary tracks made for the film.

Science fiction public domain movies

29. Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)

The full film is available on YouTube

If you are familiar with Ed Wood, then you know he has a reputation as the world’s worst director, at least of the time. Whether that reputation was truly deserved or not, Plan 9 From Outer Space is typically regarded as his crown jewel of crap.

It’s a terribly made film but endlessly charming in its own special way. Another Ed Wood classic, Glen or Glenda is also included in the public domain if you want more from this infamous filmmaker.

Public domain sci fi movies

Conclusion

Also worth checking out is the Tim Burton, Johnny Depp biopic on the man himself, Ed Wood.

Public domain Christmas movies

28. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians

Mystery Science Theater 3000 provides commentary

One last good-bad film to get this list going before we transition into films of a generally higher caliber. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1968) is a bizarre film from its absurd premise all the way to its abysmal execution. Gather around with some friends and laugh at the incompetence and absurdity on screen.

Science fiction public domain movies

Conclusion

If you’re feeling tired of the traditional Christmas films, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians can be a fun way to shake up your holiday season.

Best public domain movies

27. One-Eyed Jacks (1961)

Marlon Brando directing and starring

Sorry David Lynch fans, One-Eyed Jacks is not a film set in the Twin Peaks universe’s hippest casino-brothel hybrid (though this film is mentioned in the original series). What One-Eyed Jacks actually is, is a Western directed by and starring Marlon Brando. The film was originally set to be directed by Stanley Kubrick before Brando took over the directing responsibilities himself.

Best public domain movies

Conclusion

Both Rod Serling of Twilight Zone fame and Sam Peckinpah of The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs fame are uncredited screenwriters on One-Eyed Jacks.

Best public domain films

26. A Star is Born (1937)

The original telling of this story

If you enjoyed 2018’s Oscar darling A Star is Born, then you may be interested in going back to the original version of the film which debuted in 1937. Between the original film and the 2018 version, there were two other remakes, one in 1954 and one in 1976. Clearly this story has a timeless quality that audiences keep coming back to.

When do movies become public domain

Conclusion

A Star is Born (1937) was nominated for 8 Academy Awards and won two of them, including an honorary award for cinematographer W. Howard Greene. Color film was so new at the time that only black and white films were eligible for the official Best Cinematography Oscar, hence the honorary award was necessary to celebrate Greene’s work.

Public domain movies list

25. The Outlaw (1943)

Enjoy the full film right on YouTube

The Outlaw is a western featuring the iconic wild-west figures of Pat Garret, Billy the Kid, and Doc Holliday. The film was directed by Howard Hughes and wound up being the subject of much controversy. The Hollywood Production Code Administration considered the film unacceptable, particularly the overtly sexual presentation of Jane Russell, the film’s leading lady.

Hughes eventually made minor cuts to the film, but the Studio decided to cancel the film’s release anyway. It took two years of clever planning for Hughes who orchestrated such a public outrage surrounding the banning of the film that it eventually made it to the silver screen after all. This success was short-lived as the film screened for just a single week before the Production Code Administration had it banned.

Public domain movies download

Conclusion

The film was re-released in 1946, and this time it was a smash hit, making back its pricey budget and then some.

Public domain horror movies

24. A Bucket of Blood (1959)

From prolific filmmaker Roger Corman

A Bucket of Blood is a horror-comedy directed and produced by Roger Corman, the man behind more than 400 films! He is incredibly prolific and has a reputation for working extremely fast and keeping things dirt cheap. A Bucket of Blood is no exception, costing just $50,000 and shot in only 5 days.

Public domain films

Conclusion

It is fair to say that Roger Corman’s filmography has somewhat of a slant toward quantity over quality, but that’s not to say his films were devoid of quality altogether. Corman knew how to make a dirt-cheap film better than practically anyone.

List of all public domain movies

23. Cyrano de Bergerac (1950)

Not the first and not the last telling of this classic story

Cyrano de Bergerac is an American production of the classic French adventure tale from 1897. This 1950 version isn’t actually the first film adaptation of the story either. In 1923 a silent-film version of Cyrano de Bergerac was released and is also available in the public domain. This timeless tale has since been retold in a number of alternate versions and continues to find life with new sources.

Public domain movies download

Conclusion

A fictionalized behind-the-scenes events of the initial 1897 play was released in 2019 under the title Cyrano, My Love

Best public domain movies

22. A Farewell to Arms (1932)

The first film telling of the iconic novel

Speaking of timeless stories, our next entry was the first of many film adaptations of Ernest Hemmingway’s legendary novel, A Farewell to Arms. The novel itself is still copyrighted, so don’t go too crazy, but the owners of the 1932 film neglected to renew the copyright, and the film wound up in the public domain in 1960.

Films out of copyright

Conclusion

This first adaptation in 1932 came hot on the heels of the novel’s success having come out just a couple of years prior in 1929

Public domain films

21. Maniac (1934)

It’s a quick watch at just 50 minutes

Maniac (aka Sex Maniac) was an extremely controversial film for the time, a horror film of the exploitation variety. It’s not a particularly “good” film but it is well worth a watch for fans of trashy schlock, especially given it has a runtime clocking in at under an hour. Maniac was very loosely adapted from the works of Edgar Allen Poe and was made for an astoundingly low budget of just $7,500.

What movies are public domain

Conclusion

You won’t be wowed by the technical prowess of Maniac but you just mind find yourself charmed by its quaint ambitions and line crossing nature.

Public domain sci fi movies

20. The Little Shop of Horrors (1960)

In stark contrast to the 80s version

If you’re only familiar with the 1986 film, be aware that the original 1960 The Little Shop of Horrors is a much different film. It isn’t a comedy for one thing and it isn’t a musical either. 

The original film plays the concept straight whereas the '80s version played it for laughs. This is another Roger Corman joint and features one of Jack Nicholson’s first performances.

Science fiction public domain movies

Conclusion

It’s a completely different flavor to the 1986 version, but both versions of The Little Shop of Horrors are worth watching in their own ways.

Best public domain movies

19. The Hitch-Hiker (1953)

From director Ida Lupino

The Hitch-Hiker is a gritty film noir from director Ida Lupino who, after beginning her career as an actress, went on to become one of only a few successful female directors of the old Hollywood era. She was able to break past gender discrimination by leveraging her status as an actress and by forming her own independent production company with her husband, film producer Collier Young.

Films out of copyright

Conclusion

As the first female-director film noir in the world, The Hitch-Hiker leaves behind an important legacy in addition to being a solid film on its own merits.

What movies are public domain

18. Gulliver’s Travels (1939)

The only animated film on our list

Gulliver’s Travels is another timeless tale that has been adapted endlessly. This 1939 animated version was the second feature-length animated film produced in the United States following Snow White and the Seven Dwarves first released in 1937.

The film utilized Technicolor and was made by Fleischer Studios, the number one rival to the Walt Disney Company throughout the early days of animation. Fleischer Studios was run by a pair of brothers and was responsible for a number of iconic animated characters such as Betty Boop and Popeye, and even the first animated incarnation of Superman.

Open domain movies

Conclusion

Gulliver’s Travels was a milestone in the history of animation. The film entered the public domain in 1967 when the owners opted to not renew the copyright.

Public domain full movies

17. The Bat (1959)

Vincent Price stars

The Bat is a mystery film with just a hint of a horror film’s atmosphere. The film is actually the 4th theatrical adaptation of the novel The Circular Staircase from 1908, and is the version that has endured the longest. The story is engaging and while the production value isn’t the highest, Vincent Price in a key role keeps things classy at all times.

When do movies become public domain

Conclusion

When The Bat first hit theaters, it was released as a double feature alongside Hammer Studios’ version of The Mummy.

Famous public domain movies

16. The Man With the Golden Arm 

Classic film noir

The Man With the Golden Arm (1955) is a bonafide Film Noir classic. Starring Frank Sinatra and directed by Otto Preminger, the Austrian native behind such excellent films as Laura and Anatomy of a Murder.

The Man With the Golden Arm was controversial upon its initial release for focusing on the touchy subject of drug addiction. An added bit of controversy was kicked up when Preminger made the bold choice to release it without first gaining the approval of the Film Ratings Board. 

The MPAA and the National Legion of Decency would both try to harm the film’s chances at success, but these controversies didn’t stop the film from releasing to widespread acclaim.

Best movies in the public domain

Conclusion

The film’s acclaim despite the best efforts of the MPAA played a key role in significant changes to the Rating’s Board’s policies moving forward, allowing for more creative freedom.

Public domain movies YouTube

15. Conspiracy (1930)

Available on YouTube in full

Conspiracy was a mystery made before Production Code days of Hollywood. It was the second adaptation of the play of the same name by Robert B. Baker and John Emerson. The first adaptation was a silent film, while this version was made early on in the life of the talkie. The film wasn’t a success upon first release but it certainly has a place in cinema history and was chosen for preservation by the Library of Congress.

Best movies in the public domain

Conclusion

Conspiracy is a quick watch at under 70 minutes. This taut mystery breezes right by.

List of all public domain movies

14. Fear and Desire (1953)

Kubrick’s feature film debut

Fear and Desire was the feature-film directorial debut of legendary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. It’s far from being one of Kubrick's best films but it is a must-see for Kubrick completists. Fear and Desire is a poignant anti-war film, a message Kubrick would crystalize and perfect later on in his career with Dr. Strangelove.

Films out of copyright

Conclusion

Before making Fear and Desire, Stanley Kubrick had only directed documentary shorts.

Best public domain movies

13. White Zombie (1932)

Bela Lugosi is magnetic

White Zombie is both a haunting horror film and an important piece of film history. Technically speaking, White Zombie is the first zombie film ever made, but the zombies in this film aren’t what we typically think of when we hear the “z-word.”

The term “zombie” is derived from Haitian voodoo, where the concept of reanimating the recently deceased grew out of local folklore. In this traditional folklore, zombies were mindless but not malevolent, and they certainly didn’t eat human flesh.

Best movies in the public domain

Conclusion

Bela Lugosi’s gripping performance and the hypnotic atmosphere of the film make White Zombie a tried and true horror classic.

Best public domain movies on YouTube

12. House on Haunted Hill (1959)

Great for Halloween night

House on Haunted Hill embodies the spooky spirit of horror and/or Halloween in a way that few films manage to match with as much charm. This William Castle film has plenty of campiness but is a total crowd-pleaser, and Vincent Price is as great as ever in the role of an eccentric millionaire.

Public domain full movies

Conclusion

House on Haunted Hill is a great film to watch around Halloween if you want that classic horror vibe with a heaping helping of goofiness.

Best public domain movies on YouTube

11. Carnival of Souls (1962)

A good, creepy time

Carnival of Souls is a rather effective horror film made for a tiny budget of just $33,000. The film was shot guerilla-style to save on money and to up production values. The film was not successful upon release and the director, Herk Harvey, never made another film.

Despite the poor initial following, Carnival of Souls has gone on to amass a stronger following and has even been cited as a source of inspiration for both George A. Romero and David Lynch.

Free public domain movies online

Conclusion

Director Herk Harvey played one of the main sources of terror in the film himself, a stalker of the main character.

Public domain movies YouTube

10. My Man Godfrey (1936)

A colorized version is available as well

My Man Godfrey is a classic screwball comedy with a lasting legacy. The film has been remade, deemed culturally significant by the Library of Congress, and serves as a touchstone for the entire sub-genre. 

There is some dispute over the film’s public domain status as the rights holders of the film failed to renew their copyright, but the author of the book did retain copyright over their work. As such, the author can claim copyright over the film’s script but not its visual component.

Public domain films

Conclusion

My Man Godfrey scored Oscar nominations in all four acting categories alongside Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director.

Best public domain movies

9. The Last Man on Earth (1964)

Classy Vincent Price is the last man on earth

Vincent Price stars as The Last Man on Earth. This is an atmospheric horror film that blends the vampire and apocalypse genres in a stark fusion that leaves you questioning your morality by the end. The source novel was later adapted in 1971 as The Omega Man and then again in 2007 as the Will Smith-starrer, I Am Legend.

Public domain movies list

Conclusion

If a world-ending plague, morally ambiguous vampires, and lingering shots of desolate, depopulated locations sound like your cup of tea, The Last Man on Earth is right up your alley.

Copyright free movies

8. The Gold Rush (1925)

Charlie Chaplin in great form

The Gold Rush is an incredibly important contribution to not just the silent film era but also the entirety of film history. The Gold Rush is a Charlie Chaplin film with him again playing his iconic Tramp character.

There are actually two distinctly different versions of The Gold Rush in circulation, this one from 1925 and a subsequent version re-released in 1942. The latter version is still held under copyright, but ownership over the 1925 version has lapsed and put the film in the public domain.

Famous public domain movies

Conclusion

The Gold Rush is one of Charlie Chaplin’s best films and the one he has said he hopes to be remembered for above all others.

New public domain movies

7. Dementia 13 (1963)

See Francis Ford Coppola’s roots

Dementia 13, aka The Haunted and the Hunted, is a psychological horror that makes the absolute most of its small budget. Dementia 13 was Coppola's first real film after a couple of thinly-veiled softcore sexploitation films. Roger Corman served as the film’s producer and provided the budget, which comprised entirely of what was leftover from the budget of Corman’s own The Young Racers.

Coppola’s ingenuity with a simple premise and bare-bones budget impressed producers and audiences alike and quickly led to bigger and better projects.

Free public domain horror movies

Conclusion

The film was first planned out as a cheap knockoff of Hitchcock’s Psycho, but wound up being far more impressive than any simple knockoff.

Public domain horror movies.

6. The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Still the best telling of the story

The classic, gothic tale of The Phantom of the Opera has been told countless times over the years, but the 1925 version still stands as the best telling to date. This silent film is dripping with atmosphere and Lon Chaney is unforgettable in the title role, turning a would-be frightening creature into a sympathetic misfit for the ages.

Free public domain horror movies

Conclusion

Lon Chaney designed and applied his own makeup for The Phantom of the Opera, a process that was incredibly time-consuming and sometimes quite painful as the wires he would use to accentuate his features occasionally drew blood.

Open domain movies

5. His Girl Friday (1940)

The dialogue comes as fast as humanly possible

His Girl Friday just might be the crown jewel of the entire screwball comedy sub-genre. The chemistry, both romantic and comedic, between Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell is explosive.

The dialogue is whip-sharp and delivered with such ferocious speed that its a wonder the actors managed to get all of their lines out without choking on their tongues.

Best public domain movies

Conclusion

His Girl Friday is a complicated public domain case as copyright over the film has lapsed, but the play it's based upon remains copyrighted, meaning that, technically speaking, the visuals of the film are in the public domain but not the writing is not.

Famous public domain movies

4. Charade (1963)

A fun Hitchcockian lark

Charade has often been described as the best Alfred Hitchcock film that Alfred Hitchcock never made. In watching it, it’s easy to see why Charade has this reputation. Hitchcock regular Cary Grant stars alongside Audrey Hepburn and a star-studded supporting cast with the likes of Walter Matthau, James Coburn, and George Kennedy. Charade is equal parts thrilling, intriguing, and hilarious.

New public domain movies

Conclusion

Charade found itself landing in the public domain immediately upon its release in 1963 on the smallest of technicalities. While the film did include a copyright notice, it was miswritten and lacked the actual word “Copyright,” the abbreviation “Copr.”, or the © symbol, and thus, the copyright was deemed invalid.

Public domain Christman movies

3. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Jimmy Stewart is in a league of his own

It’s a Wonderful Life ranks amongst the most beloved films ever made. It’s an incredible film to watch around Christmas or any other time of year for that matter. Jimmy Stewart is in top form and the entire supporting cast plays their parts perfectly. This Frank Capra film is one that everyone should see at least once in their life, an absolute classic.

Top public domain movies

Conclusion

It’s A Wonderful Life is another controversial copyright case. The film initially entered the public domain due to a clerical error that prevented the copyright from being renewed. Ownership over the film has been the subject of multiple court cases and since copyright was maintained over the short story The Greatest Gift, courts ruled in favor of the film as the property of the Republic Pictures Corporation.

Free public domain movies online

2. The General (1926)

Enjoy this high-quality transfer

Alongside Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton helped to define the silent film era. Keaton’s stunts were bold, dangerous, and always impressive, and The General is often considered his finest achievement. Despite the universal acclaim these days, the film was considered a disappointment upon release as critics met it harshly, and audiences were clamoring for the end of the silent comedy era with talkies right around the corner.

The film wouldn’t have been considered as much of a failure if not for the massive budget, one of the highest of the time at $750,000 (unadjusted for inflation), due in part to one shot in particular which destroyed a genuine, vintage locomotive from the civil war era in a stunt costing approximately $42,000 dollars at the time, which equates to roughly half a million dollars today.

Copyright free movies

Conclusion

The General was one of the very first films deemed culturally significant by the Library of Congress and is frequently cited as one of the greatest achievements in American filmmaking.

Public domain horror movies

1. Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Truly timeless and important to cinematic history

There would be no zombie genre as we know it without George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. This is a monumental film for the horror genre, for independent filmmaking, and for black representation in film. The cultural and historical importance of Night of the Living Dead cannot be overstated.

Best public domain movies

Conclusion

An error from the film’s distributors led to Night of the Living Dead entering the public domain immediately upon release. When the film was nearly released under the title Night of the Flesh Eaters, a copyright notice was included along with the film’s title but when the title was changed to Night of the Living Dead, the copyright notice was cut out along with the previous title, and a replacement copyright notice was not included in the final film print. This distribution mishap led to a major financial loss for Romero and the film’s producers as anyone could show and duplicate the film without paying for the rights.

Up Next

The Best Zombie Films Ever Made

Speaking of Night of the Living Dead, there are a lot of great zombie movies out there, and we ranked the best of them. See which zombie flicks made our ranked list including Dead Alive, Rec, and The Return of the Living Dead.

Up Next: The Best Zombie Films→

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