Most characters and stories — known in the movie industry as intellectual property (IP) — are protected by copyright laws, but only for a fixed period of time. However, what happens when they fall into the public domain, and can be shared or used without permission or fee? The length of copyright varies from country to country, but in the UK and USA, a property enters public domain 95 years after first release or 120 years after creation.
Although there’s an argument that public domain is good for creative freedom — just look at the countless adaptations of Sherlock Holmes — not everyone agrees. Every year, more and more properties enter the public domain, which can lead to legal troubles, unwanted parodies, and your favourite franchises being ripped off by poor imitations looking for a quick buck.
The future of public domain and what happens to your favourite franchises, explained in 12 points
2022 was a big year. Major IPs fell into public domain on January 1, 2022. The big ones include Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and Dorothy Parker’s Enough Rope, and A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh. Silent films starring the likes of Buster Keaton and Greta Garbo joined them alongside over 400,000 sound recordings.
Visiting the Hundred Acre Wood. Characters appearing in Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh from 1926 entered the public domain. Disney acquired the rights in 1961, and it’s now the highest-grossing media franchise of all time with $73.7 billion in revenue.
Bouncing into difficulties. Tigger didn’t appear until 1928’s The House at Pooh Corner, so can’t be used until 2024. Only Milne’s 'classic' Pooh is in PD, meaning the red t-shirt version made iconic by Disney is still under copyright.
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Blood and Money. Rhys Waterfield’s Winnie the Pooh: Love and Honey released in 2022 as a horror movie that has nothing to do with Disney. Waterfield told Yahoo they were careful to only base their Pooh on the 1926 version.
PD is a lawless place. A lack of policing means anyone can create anything they want. Disney’s family-friendly image doesn’t fit with the horror of Blood and Honey, while it might also be possible to create pornographic knock-odds of works without being able to file for copyright infringement.
Copyright complications. The 1976 Copyright Act (becoming effective in 1978) makes things more complicated. US law can extend copyright for 70 years from the author’s death. There are also circumstances where copyright protects a property for 120 years if it was done anonymously or as “work for hire.”
Creativity is king. Public domain allows for creativity, with West Side Story being based on Romeo & Juliet or Disney greats like Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Frozen (2013) coming from public domain works. Without Dickens’ A Christmas Carol being PD, we’d never have The Muppet’s Christmas Carol.
You’re a mean one. Steven LaMorte’s The Mean One is a horror twist on How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The Grinch should’ve entered PD in 2014, but due to current copyright law, that won’t be until at least 2053. The Mean One is marketed as a parody and doesn’t refer to its lead as 'the Grinch'.
The legend of Metropolis. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis goes into public domain in 2023. As one of the most famous films of all time, Metropolis was filmed and registered in 1925. Due to the Copyright Act of 1909 only protecting it for 28 years, it was previously PD from 1953 until 1996.
Mickey takes his gloves off in 2024. It’s nearly 95 years since Mickey Mouse appeared in Steamboat Willie. UCLA School of Law’s Daniel Mayeda told The Guardian you can use the original design of Mickey in 2024, but if people think it’s from Disney due to an association with the character, it could violate trademark.
Shaken but not stirred. In Canada, Ian Fleming’s books entered PD on January 1, 2015. The author died in 1964, but due to lengthier restrictions in the USA and UK, James Bond is still under copyright. Only the books are in the public domain, meaning movie aspects like Blofeld having a white cat can’t be used.
Is anything safe from PD? We’re still a long way out from being able to re-film Game of Thrones season eight, but in some distant future, Marvel characters created by Stan Lee will be up for grabs. You could eventually rewrite Harry Potter and outright state Dumbledore is gay from the first chapter.
Watch a trailer for The Mean One