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Brian Light grew up in a Michigan family that sold jewelry. Bored with the family business, he moved to Miami two years ago in search of excitement. What he came up with was “Light at Midnight,” a show of old movies and cartoons that has been airing for seven months in Florida from South Miami-Dade to South Broward on AT&T Cable. The programs are nothing new, except that most of them are in the public domain. The 34-year-old Light scours dusty archives looking for movies whose copyrights are expired or lost. Armed solely with $25,000 in seed capital and an Indiana Jones-like nose for intricate copyright loopholes, in seven months he has built a collection of over 450 titles. Public domain material is often considered discarded junk, but Light is quick to correct that misimpression. His titles include classics such as Hitchcock’s “Sabotage” (1936) and “The Secret Agent” (1936), as well as “Dementia 13,” Francis Ford Coppola’s first feature, from 1963, and the cult classic “Reefer Madness” (1936). Light laughs, mocking his addiction to cinematic minutiae. “With just a little toke, the average teenager may become an addict,” he says, quoting a tag line from “Reefer Madness.” What puts a film of Hitchcock caliber in the public domain? “Anything that’s financed by the government,” says Light. “That’s probably the biggest loophole. Probably about 60 percent of your National Geographic specials are public domain. NASA, the stuff you buy in souvenir stores, is government-funded. That’s paid for by you and me. ” ‘Leave It To Beaver’ is the best example. [There's an episode] where Beaver’s trying to save up to buy a bike, but he keeps buying other stuff. His dad takes him to the bank. Next thing you know, Beaver’s got $20 saved. He doesn’t buy the bike, he buys a [government] savings bond. The government paid for that episode.” According to James Mann, an entertainment attorney in Miami, any film can fall into the public domain if the producer of the film fails to re-register the copyright with the Library of Congress. It can also fall into the public domain if the copyright expires, as most do after the death of the author, plus a certain number of years, and no one remembers to renew ownership. As Light finds titles with expired copyrights, he moves through a legal minefield, because there is not only a copyright to a film title, there are also underlying copyrights, including the music, screenplay and actors’ performances. The U.S. Copyright Act has different lengths of time for the expiration of each of those movie elements. Take the example of the “The Poseidon Adventure,” an ocean liner disaster flick that could fall into public domain at any minute. If it were aired, the authors of the title song, “The Morning After,” who licensed the song for limited use in the film, might have a case of infringement against the network and the film’s producer, who aired the film without their express permission. “You would have to acquire a separate license [for the song], in that example,” says Richard C. Wolfe, a Miami entertainment attorney for Zack Kosnitzky. Mann disagrees, saying there would probably be no infringement. “I believe it’s been decided [by a federal court] that the money can’t be collected.” Both attorneys believe, however, that this example might be a bit far-fetched, at least for the next few years. The ambiguity arises because, recently, films from the catalogues of major film distributors are starting to slip into the public domain. As large companies begin to lose control of their sacred archives, the law in this area will no doubt play catch-up for several years. In the time that this loophole remains open it allows small start-ups, like “Light at Midnight” to air quality shows at bargain basement prices. That includes classics such as “Royal Wedding” with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, “Till the Clouds Roll By” with Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland, and the Don Johnson sci-fi cheese-ball classic “A Boy and His Dog.” No actor, writer or musician need be paid a royalty for these broadcasts. According to both Wolfe and Mann, if the broadcaster pays a blanket license of about $500 a year to performance rights agencies like ASCAP and BMI, they are relieved of responsibility. Light does not pay a blanket license because he says it is built into the leasing agreement for his airtime with AT&T. This puts Light in compliance with the law, but it does not necessarily mean that performers get paid from these agencies. As for his own overhead, Brian has no staff other than an attorney who helps him with clearances. He is a one-man show who writes, shoots and produces his own content and even many of the commercials that he airs. When he’s not doing that, Light spends many an hour researching public domain titles on the Internet, in libraries and in public domain catalogs. He pays between $50 and $400 per movie or cartoon. Light’s vision came about after he grew tired of the family jewelry franchise. “Since I was a kid, I ran around with a camera, I did stand-up comedy and even toured with Tim Allen. I came down [to Miami] to liquidate a jewelry business.” Light thought he had a target audience because he was disappointed with the quality produced by Miami’s WAMI-TV, owned by media mogul Barry Diller’s USA Networks. “[WAMI is] like taking a class of college students and saying, ‘Go produce something and we’ll put it on the air.’ To me it didn’t seem like quality TV.” Then he discovered public domain movies. With the fees from a large consulting job for J.C. Penney Co. Inc., he scraped together his initial investment of $25,000. This went toward building his catalogue and paying for infringement insurance and dubbing equipment. Light claims that his show, which airs seven days a week from midnight to 3 a.m., reaches about 85,000 homes, totaling about 226,000 adults, mostly between the ages of 25 to 44. This is a prime target for most advertisers. Light charges advertisers a lowly $500 per month for 150 airings, about one-tenth of what cable companies charge. So far, aside from several small restaurants, Light’s biggest advertiser has been a local Internet company called Softnetgaming, an online publishing and advertising company with four Web magazines. Miami-based Softnetgaming bailed Light out from a poor earlier alliance. “I got involved with a rap label. For the entrepreneurs out there reading this: Avoid rap labels!” Light says. “They bought stock in my company and I was doing their management. Now they’re in breach, because they stole some equipment.” It was almost over before it really began for “Light at Midnight” until Softnetgaming came to the rescue. They gave the show a new office and a phone line. Bill Perone, Softnet’s president explains why: “He’s young, aggressive and talented. I liked him and decided to help him out.” Because public domain movies can be shown by anyone, most stations look to distinguish themselves from the competition by developing original content. Normally this is the big league of cable channels like TNT, Lifetime and MTV, but Light, after a seven-month roller coaster ride, has a low-cost solution to this as well. “There are hundreds of people who have equipment, producing shows all over Miami, and they have no place to show them. � I actually don’t buy anything. I let them get their own sponsors and I charge them $500 a month. I broadcast their show eight times a month, twice a week. It’s like running an infomercial.” One taker for this method of exposure is Miami-based “Planet Love,” a multimedia dance and music show. Snezana Durich, the president of Planet Love Productions, is using “Light At Midnight” to launch her new show. “I like Brian’s energy,” says Durich, a former recording artist. “He’s allowing artists to showcase their material. I chose [his show] as a vehicle, because it’s new.” “Planet Love” has attracted a number of sponsors, such as Tigerhomes.com, a search engine for real estate, and the Voodoo Lounge, a South Beach nightspot. Light believes that in several years this will grow into an important platform for new talent. “I want to find the little guy, who has a hell of an idea, and put him up there. It’s more important that it’s an honest show.”

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