A film that is published before 1978 is subject to the Copyright Act of 1909. That copyright law had certain restrictions and formalities that are not included in the current act, three of which are relevant to your questions.
- Films published pre-1978 without copyright notice are probably in the public domain.
- Films published between 1923 and 1964, that were not renewed 28 years after publication are in the public domain.
- Just because a pre-1978 film falls into the public doesn't mean that all of the elements of the film -- for example, soundtracks or underlying story -- are also in the public domain.
Who can register a work? Only the author or the author's transferees, or someone with their authorization, can apply for registration. Film restoration, though it requires great skill and craft, does not demonstrate sufficient originality, by itself, to claim a derivative copyright in a public domain film. However, film restoration plus additions or revisions -- for example, a re-recorded soundtrack and commentary -- may be the subject of copyright. Claiming ownership in a purely public domain work is verboten.
Copyright Notice. Until March 1, 1989, copyright notice (with certain exceptions) was required on all copies of a pre-1978 work published with the authorization of the owner. These three requirements -- notice, publication and authorization -- were the subject of many lawsuits.
Publication. For example, a film was not considered "published" when it was displayed or "performed" in a movie theater. Publication of a film, according to attorney Stephen Fishman, occurred when "prints of the film were transferred to an independent film distributor that made several hundred copies and sent them to its branch offices (also called “exchanges”) around the world. The exchanges entered into film rental agreements with exhibitors who then showed the films to the public." The Ninth Circuit has held that films were published for copyright purposes when copies were placed in these exchanges for distribution to theater operators, a position supported by the Copyright Office and the film studios.
Notice format. There were various rules regarding placement in the film and the notice format. But keep in mind that judges, faced with the invalidation of copyright because of a notice error are often forgiving. Courts will look to determine whether any notice is present that advises the public that there is a proprietor, and that the notice doesn't affirmatively mislead. On that basis, it's not prudent to assume that the failure to name the owner in the notice invalidates the copyright.