It happens all the time: You run down to the video store to rent your favorite movie classic, only to find someone else has beaten you to it. But what if you could buy your very own DVD of the film for the same price as renting it?

That dream is now a reality as more and more small and medium-size companies have started selling classic movie DVDs for 500 yen apiece. The “one-coin DVDs” are a hit with film buffs.

Up to 140 cut-price movies are now available including such masterpieces as “Casablanca,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Gone with the Wind” and “Charade,” with some selling for as little as 380 yen.

What makes these rock-bottom prices possible is a 2004 revision to the Copyright Law that aimed to boost copyright protection, but also expanded the number of works in the copyright-free public domain.

The revised law extended the period for protecting intellectual property copyrights from 50 years to 70 years. At the same time, however, copyrights that had expired by Jan. 1 2004 — movies released on or before Dec. 31, 1953 — entered the public domain.

“We don’t need to pay costly copyright fees (to film studios) anymore,” said Kenjiro Harasawa, a senior official at PD Classic Inc., which sells some 30,000 older DVDs titles per month.

But distributors have had a hard time making a profit from the classic films, despite strong sales, Harasawa said.

Aside from the fierce competition, there is the cost of hiring U.S. firms to verify that the copyrights of the movies they want to purchase have expired. PD Classic even asks the U.S. Library of Congress to issue a certificate stating that a film is in the public domain, he said, adding, “We need to sell at least 10,000 discs per movie to make a profit.”

While profit margins are slim, having more DVDs available for purchase helps stimulate demand.

The one-coin DVDs aren’t just cheap, they are available at a range of shops that goes beyond the usual video and music shops — bookstores, convenience stores, do-it-yourself stores and online shops, to name a few.

Takuya Yamada of Books Kinokuniya’s Shinjuku branch said he hopes the cheap DVDs will encourage customers, many of whom still think of DVDs strictly as a rental item, to become buyers instead.

The store sells about 100 DVDs per month, mainly to elderly male customers who remember the classics from their youth.

“People can buy DVDs as easily as buying a paperback,” said Keita Funaki, another Books Kinokuniya staffer. “Some customers collect the whole series (of discount DVDs).”

But while these companies say sales are brisk, DVD rental stores appear unconcerned.

Ryoko Maeda, spokeswoman for Cultural Convenience Club Co., operator of the Tsutaya rental video chain, said the effect is minimal because there are still relatively few titles available.

“People have different motives for renting DVDs and for buying them,” she said.

Others are concerned that once movies in the public domain have been put onto DVD, there will be no way to further expand the business.

“There is a limit to supplying ‘new’ movies (for cheap DVDs) when there is limited number of public domain movies,” said Shinichi Koshino, president of Keep Co., a CD importer that also sells one-coin DVDs. The firm has sold between 2 million and 3 million DVDs for 140 titles since it entered the business last August.

“Once we run out of new versions, there is nothing we can do but continue selling these DVDs.”

And buyers thinking of making copies of the cheap DVDs and going into business for themselves should think again — that’s a violation of the Copyright Law.

“We hold the copyright for the Japanese subtitles” even though the movies themselves are public domain, Keep’s Koshino said. “Each company (hires translators) to make their own subtitles.”

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