© Time Warner Studios MCMXCVIII

A post on MTVSE questions why movies use Roman numerals in the copyright notices of the end credits. The accepted (and referenced) answer (ref 1, ref 2) states that this convention probably arose in a bid to make it difficult for viewers to determine exactly how old the show is.

However, another (unreferenced) answer suggests a couple of other plausible and practical answers:

  1. Roman numerals are easier to read when the film degrades. Just a little degradation, the number 6 could be mistaken for the number 5. It's not as easy with VI and V.
  2. Unlike Roman numerals, Arabic ones are hard to distinguish in fine print.

So which is true? Were Roman numerals used to mask the age of a movie? If so, why? What is the basis for this conclusion? Or were they used for improved legibility?

Or is the reason something else altogether?

  • 8
    This will be tricky to answer, because it is asking for the motivations of a group; that doesn't make it off-topic, just difficult.
    – Oddthinking
    Dec 20 '13 at 3:04
  • 2
    This has been answered on another site----->movies.stackexchange.com/a/10150
    – Andalur
    Dec 22 '13 at 4:35
  • 1
    This may call for more speculation that what is usually allowed.
    – Neil Meyer
    Dec 23 '13 at 7:41
  • 1
    @Andalur the OP is explicitly skeptical of that answer.
    – Sklivvz
    Dec 23 '13 at 14:00
  • 1
    @vartec see any BBC production
    – mmmmmm
    Feb 26 '15 at 12:06

From American Legion Magazine (March 1949), page 23:

they're playing down the fact that these are old pictures. So the movie goer pays his money to see a movie-usually it has big names and these are played up-and he finds he's been rooked by an old turkey that he wouldn't have paid a dime to see ten years ago....Of course every picture has a copyright date in the first few feet of film along with the credits. But credits are flashed on the screen quickly and the date is in Roman numerals which are not easily read.

From "Reveal the Facts" Educational Film and Audio-visual Guide (1962) volume 41, page 305:

We thought we were joking when we told the representative of one of the leading film producers it was the fault of his company that school systems had inadequate budgets for the purchase of films. You can imagine the height to which his eyebrows raised on that one! But as we discussed the idea, there seemed to be some truth in it. Now after much further thought, we're inclined to believe the idea is also worthy of your consideration.

The point is this. By the standards that are applied to textbooks, most of our educational film library collections are filled with out-of-date and obsolete materials. A principal cause of this woeful situation is that producers have insisted - and still insist - upon concealing the copyright facts of the films they produce. They use the smallest size, most illegible letters available, and conceal the dates in deceptive Roman numerals, hoping that nobody will every realize when the film was made.

Alternative link to article

Likewise, from the Manual of Film Evaluation (1967) published by the Educational Film Library Association, at page 10:

Date (This is the hardest item to obtain - - producers often conceal it of fail to mention it at all. If the film is copyright, there will be a copyright date somewhere in the titles. It will be written in minute Roman numerals and tucked away at the corner of one of the credit titles and will remain on the screen for a split second only. The best way to find it is to run the titles through a viewer until you find a date. Another method is to check the Library of Congress cards if available. A third is to...

Even in The nature of mathematics (1967) by Frederick H. Young at page 28:

When a motion picture is to be shown on television the date is invariably given in Roman numerals and is shown for a very brief interval. Because most of the viewers are not adept at reading Roman numerals, they are not alerted by the sight of MCMXXXIV for a few seconds on the screen that they are about to be subjected to a 1934 movie

Similarly, form Flicks, Flacks, and Flux: Tides of Taste in the Onomasticon of the Moving Picture Industry Names: Journal of the American Name Society (1975), vol. 23, pages 221-280, by Leonard R. N. Ashley, quoting from page 273:

Few people bother to notice these credits and (like the copyright dates—traditionally expressed in Roman numerals so as not to be too easily read, for no one in this day of reissued movies and television sales wishes to "date" them) they are more for legal purposes than for the public.

(alternative link to article)

From Modern Australian Usage (1993) by Nicholas Hudson at page 277:

There are four problems with Roman numerals:

(1)Comprehension Very few people regularly come across, and can hence read fluently, any numbers beyond twelve; so they should not be used in any sequence going further than this unless the intention is to give the information (if, say, required to do so by law) yet at the same time to conceal it, as happens with the dates on films

So for over 65 years it has been recognized that this is the reason.

  • 1
    Concealment can not be the reason, as I noted above, since any halfway educated (in the western tradition, anyway) person can easily read Roman numerals. Or are you implying that the moviegoing public is functionally illiterate?
    – jamesqf
    Apr 29 '15 at 18:28
  • 1
    @jamesqf See "Speed and accuracy of reading Arabic and Roman numerals" Journal of Applied Psychology vol. 36 pages 346-7 if you are interested in actual experimental data.
    – DavePhD
    Apr 29 '15 at 18:55
  • 2
    @jamesqf Keep in mind that even though MMXV is pretty easy to parse quickly, MCMLXVII and MCMLXXV require more thought. And it's moving rapidly across the screen with no way to stop it for a closer look.
    – Bobson
    Apr 29 '15 at 20:23
  • 1
    @Bobson - even as a pre teen child myself and most people I know had no problems reading the Roman numeral dates.
    – mmmmmm
    Apr 29 '15 at 21:56
  • 3
    @jamesqf - Did the one you had in 1962 or 1975 have a pause? What I tried to imply (but obviously failed at) was that this was a practical idea back then, but it doesn't make as much sense now.
    – Bobson
    Apr 30 '15 at 14:55

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