Soviet-Era Film Rights Deal Leaves Poland Out in the Cold

Russia is exploiting a decades-old copyright agreement for top Polish movies.

MOSCOW – Russia is still making money off more than 200 Communist-era Polish movies in a deal brokered in Soviet times.

The open-ended copyright deal, signed in the 1960s and last updated in 1983 to include DVD sales, allows Roskino, the successor company to Sovexportfilm, to make money from television and festival licensing deals, Polish daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza revealed.

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But Poland’s post-Communist heir to the reciprocal rights of 1,100 Soviet films included in the same series of copyright deals, the Polish Film Institute, is a public, nonprofit body and cannot exploit those titles commercially.

The Polish films include famous titles such as Tadeusz Chmielewski’s 1970s comedy about a hapless Polish soldier, How I Unleashed World War II, and Wojciech Has' 1965 fantasy adventure The Saragossa Manuscript.

“Russia’s state-owned company Roskino sells licenses to People's Republic of Poland hits to Russian television stations and festival organizers,” Gazeta Wyborcza reported.

“Until recently, [titles] also appeared on DVD in a series ‘legends of the screen’ -- and you can still buy them [in Russia].”

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Roskino does not pay any royalties to the Polish National Film Archive, the newspaper said, because the deals signed in Soviet times were open-ended and based upon reciprocal swaps of materials.

Communist-era notions of copyright differed substantially from those prevalent in the West, with the authorities of countries such as Russia and Poland regarding all property created by their citizens as being in public domain.

Increasing numbers of vintage films are being digitally reconstructed, the paper said, adding that the Soviet-era deal means Poland can not sell "the pearl of Polish cinema to the huge Russian market, because their distribution licenses have been sold long ago."

But the newspaper concedes that terminating the contracts would be a complex and costly process -- as it involves dealing with countries and companies that no longer exist.