While scouring eBay for interesting Christmas presents a while back, I found and bought a DVD of a film made in 1954 about my home town of Doylestown, Pa. After it arrived I went searching for more information about it — and found the entire film, available as a free download from the nonprofit Internet Archive.It turned out that the eBay seller had simply downloaded the movie file, burned it onto a DVD and stuck it in the mail. And he was doing the same with a wide range of other public-domain material: military truck manuals from World War II, PowerPoint presentations on health matters from government doctors, vaudeville shorts from the late 1800’s.The seller’s name is Jeffrey; he wouldn’t give his last name because, he said, strange buyers sometimes want to come by his house to pay for things in person. In an interview, Jeffrey said that he spends 20 to 30 hours a week working on his eBay business at his home near Dayton, Ohio. He wouldn’t say how much money he makes, but indicated that it was worth the time he was putting into it.Jeffrey’s auction listings do say the material is in the public domain, and he acknowledges that it is all out there on the Web for those who know where to find it. But he said some of his customers were people who might not know how to turn a downloaded file into something they could watch on a TV or play on a CD player. Some have dial-up Internet connections that would choke on a 600-megabyte compilation of technical manuals. Others don’t have the time or expertise to search for specific information. “Some people say ‘I could have gotten this on my own,’ but a lot of my stuff is very difficult to find,” he said.Other sellers have gotten into the business since Jeffrey started doing this seriously in 1999, so sales are down somewhat. He estimated that there are 10 to 20 people selling public-domain material on eBay, and he said they watched each others’ auctions for clues as to what buyers might want. PowerPoint presentations from government sites, particularly on medical topics, are his latest niche.Brewster Kahle, the digital librarian of the Internet Archive and a co-founder of the organization, said his group had no problem with people selling material from its online collection in this way. “There’s nobody making a lot of money off of this kind of thing,” he said.Mr. Kahle added that he would, of course, like to see people making more creative use of the material, as in the case of this mashup of old instructional films and new footage that a couple made to show at their wedding.I felt a little cheated when I found out that I had paid Jeffrey for a free movie. But at a time when there is so much focus on copyrighted material being ripped from CDs and DVDs and set loose on the Internet, it’s an interesting twist to find people taking non-copyrighted material in the other direction — and making some money from it.Then there is the simple fact that if the film hadn’t ended up on eBay, I most likely would never have seen it — or given it to my dad, who got a kick out of it.

“I’m performing services much like Lexis-Nexis or any other company that sells data,” Jeffrey said. “Somebody has to do that research.”

[Off-topic: If you watch the film I bought about Doylestown and this film about Levittown, Pa.,you’ll notice that the stilted voiceover is almost exactly the same. The man behind the company that made these was apparently an early innovator in the local content space, charging businesses to be featured in films that were shown before the features at the town theater. Using the same soundtrack for multiple towns helped keep costs down, but it tends to undermine the theme of local specialness: “These civic-minded familiar faces we all know in my home town think our town is something to shout about. Don’t you?”]