Roy E. Aitken and his brother Harry were successful movie producers and movie financiers during the 1910s, the decade during which they were instrumental in financing production of The Birth of a Nation (1915). In his memoir, Aitken makes clear that he and his brother did not select the story of that landmark film. Instead, director D.W. Griffith had become interested and had already met with Thomas Dixon, author of the written works on which the film would be based.
In 1965, Roy Aitken was the only one of the four men still alive, so he was alone in having the opportunity to set to paper his account of the events leading to production and to ownership of the copyright. His book is titled The Birth of a Nation Story, authorship is credited to Roy E. Aitken as told to Al P. Nelson, with publication by Denlinger of Middleburg, Va. The book states that the decision to produce The Birth of a Nation was carefully considered because of this film’s enormous expense. However, Aitken’s memoir makes clear that the Aitken brothers controlled the Majestic and Reliance Companies (which produced films), Mutual Film Corporation (their distibution agency), and the financing of Mutual’s other suppliers: Fine Arts Studio (Griffith’s company), Thomas Ince, and Keystone (run by Mack Sennett). The first three companies had board members other than the Aitkens, some of them also overlapping. Aitken reports that he and his brother were concerned that a film they had financed themselves such as Birth could become lumped in with the routine films and thus its profits eligible for sharing with the owners of the other companies. (Most, but not all, of this information is reported on pages 26-27.)
On page 48, writing about the period in February 1915 when The Birth of a Nation was transitioning from previews to premiere, Aitken writes:
A couple of days later at our New York office, Harry told me, “Our lawyer has just informed me that Griffith has copyrighted the picture in the name of the D. W. Griffith Coporation.” He looked a little worried.
Harry nodded. “On the coast, Griffith and I talked about a new company to handle the Birth, but nothing definite was decided. Griffith was quick to protect his interest by copyrighting the Birth. Actually he owns nothing of it, yet—he has no money invested. So I’ll bet he now asks to buy some stock in addition to the royalty agreement.”
On the next page, Aitken states that the brothers got Griffith to sign over his copyright to the brother’s new company, Epoch. Aitken writes:
I could never get Harry to tell me whether Griffith intended to keep the Birth of a Nation copyright for the D. W. Griffith Corporation, or whether he wanted to use it only as a bargaining ace. But the facts showed Griffith acted very rapidly in his own behalf by copyrighting the epic as soon as it was completed. If he had other intentions, they were known only to himself.
On the basis of the memoir, one can surmise that the Aitken brothers transferred ownership of the film from one of their companies to another to keep the profits in the hands of the four established participants and to keep the profits from people whose only connection was partial-ownership of additional companies helmed by Roy and Harry Aitken. It may be that in transferring ownership among their companies, they failed to document the transfer, leaving no paper trail for later. This would explain why evidence available in 1975 could not substantiate that Epoch had any interests prior to February 6, 1915, the date it was founded.
The fact of D.W. Griffith filing for copyright is irrelevant to the renewal attempt. By signing over his copyright to Epoch (the same company which took out the second copyright registration later in the year), it meant that Epoch would be the company solely eligible to renew during the renewal window in 1942-43.
Aitken’s book and other sources report that shortly after the premiere engagements of the movie (which were controlled by Griffith, Dixon and the Aitkens), the Aitkens accepted several offers to sell outright for flat fees the rights to exhibit the movie in specific territories. (The Aitkens retained control in several desirable cities.) At this point, the film was no longer being merely exhibited (which fit the legal definition of “unpublished” work) but was instead a work of which copies were sold. Thus it came about that The Birth of a Nation was copyrighted a second time, now as a published work, on October 1, 1915. (See https://chart.copyrightdata.com/c01B.html#s144) The purchaser of the rights for New England (minus Boston) was Louis B. Mayer, who scraped together $50,000, bringing him profits that enabled him to start the empire which became Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (M-G-M).
This page is a supplement to descriptions about the 1975 court decision on the copyright status of The Birth of a Nation found elsewhere on this web site. If you’ve reached this page without going through the descriptions, you can reach them at https://chart.copyrightdata.com/c07B.html#s142 and https://chart.copyrightdata.com/c04G.html#s145.
Details in Aitken’s book are sometimes specious. Not only does Aitken offer as quotations supposedly-remembered conversations in which he and his brother overload their statements with ancillary particulars which neither would have needed to say to someone already well-informed about the subject at hand, but also Aitken makes important subjects not yet understood to be boons when the supposed statements were made. Recalling on pages 28-29 a conversation he and Harry had the morning after hearing Griffith’s pitch for making The Birth of a Nation, Roy Aitken offers this as his brother’s reaction that morning late in 1913:
“I wish that this decision about The Clansman [the working title for Birth] and its big production expense could be postponed for six months or a year, Roy,” complained Harry as he prepared to leave for Brown’s office. “Then perhaps we’d have more time to cash in on Tom Ince’s Bill Hart Westerns and Mack Sennett’s comedies with Charlie Chaplin, in addition to the films Griffith will produce. But I will see what Brown has to say about the Civil War venture.”
In actuality, Charlie Chaplin was not signed by Sennett until December 1913 and the first film to feature this untried vaudeville comic would not reach theaters until February 1914. Chaplin’s name would not have been singled out by Aitken at this time.