William S. Hart and Re-titled Reissues in the 1910s
Film libraries first gained commercial value and provoked controversy decades before they reached TV.
In the mid-1910s, four developments caused the value of film negatives, the basis for reproducing prints, to greatly increase: the growth of motion picture copyright law, the rise of the star system, the growth of the feature film, and the innovation of new distribution infrastructures.
In 1917, the financially troubled Triangle Film Corporation was the first major film company of this era to strategically exploit its film library. Through a subsidiary, Triangle re-titled old William S. Hart pictures and sold them to states rights distributors, which rented them to “snipers”—small exhibitors that opened a star’s old film at the same time a star’s new film premiered in town.
In response, the Federal Trade Commission investigated and passed a landmark ruling that limited the uses of a copyrighted film. The reissue business, however, was not limited to the supply-side. Groups of buyers (small exhibitors) and end users (movie fans) demanded the reissue of old films.