‘The Beverly Hillbillies’: Here’s Why Some Episodes Are in Public Domain

by Clayton Edwards

The Beverly Hillbillies is a classic. The show ran for nine seasons from 1962 to 1971. Critics weren’t particularly fond of it, but the fans absolutely adored the show. In fact, it ranked among the most-watched television shows for most of its run. It was the top-rated series for two seasons. Today, thousands of fans still tune in to visit the Clampetts in syndication.

The Beverly Hillbillies came at an important time in American history. The series premiered less than ten years after interstate highways became a reality, making travel simpler. At the same time artists like Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley were really hitting their stride. The early sixties were the early days of the suburban middle class. So, rural life wasn’t as prevalent as it once was. The new suburbanites had a whole family of hillbillies to laugh at every week. That helped to propel the show to prominence.

If you’ve never watched The Beverly Hillbillies or just want to relive the beginnings of the Clampett family’s riches, you can pick up most of the first two seasons on DVD. In fact, you can usually find the early episodes of the show for just a few dollars. This is because most of the first two seasons of the show are in the public domain.

Why Are Some Episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies Public Domain?

American copyright law is tricky. Recently, musicians such as Dwight Yoakam have used copyright law to attempt to regain control of older recordings. The complexity and ever-changing nature of American copyright law is the reason why only part of The Beverly Hillbillies series is in the public domain but the rest is not.

Copyright law in the United States has changed many times over the years. Each time, copyright periods have extended. At the same time, extension periods have steadily grown. Currently, many works are under copyright for nearly a century before falling into the public domain. However, when The Beverly Hillbillies premiered, things were much different.

If a studio released a film or television show between 1923 and 1963, the copyright only lasted for twenty-eight years. At that point, it could be renewed for another twenty-eight years. However, this changed in 1963. Copyright terms got longer. The Beverly Hillbillies first hit the small screen in 1962. So, the first season of the show as well as a handful of episodes from the second season fell under the old copyright law.

So, the big reason that fifty-five episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies are in the public domain is negligence. Had the owners of the copyright renewed them before they slipped into the public domain, they would still own the rights to them. However, that’s a win for many TV viewers. Since the episodes are public domain, they can be sold by low-budget studios and broadcast on any number of small networks. Fans can also watch the episodes online without fear of breaking the law.