It’s been a long, long time since characters with the following and impact of Disney’s mascot and DC’s biggest headliner became public domain, but in the next few years – even less time than we have to stop climate change – that’s a-gonna present a whole new (and theoretically much more fixable) entertainment world:
by Timothy B. Lee
As the ball dropped over Times Square last night, all copyrighted works published in 1923 fell into the public domain (with a few exceptions). Everyone now has the right to republish them or adapt them for use in new works.
It’s the first time this has happened in 21 years.
In 1998, works published in 1922 or earlier were in the public domain, with 1923 works scheduled to expire at the beginning of 1999. But then Congress passed the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act. It added 20 years to the terms of older works, keeping 1923 works locked up until 2019.
Many people—including me—expected another fight over copyright extension in 2018. But it never happened. Congress left the existing law in place, and so those 1923 copyrights expired on schedule this morning.
And assuming Congress doesn’t interfere, more works will fall into the public domain each January from now on.
Next January, George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue will fall into the public domain. It will be followed by The Great Gatsby in January 2021 and Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises in January 2022.
On January 1, 2024, we’ll see the expiration of the copyright for Steamboat Willie—and with it Disney’s claim to the film’s star, Mickey Mouse. The copyrights to Superman, Batman, Disney’s Snow White, and early Looney Tunes characters will all fall into the public domain between 2031 and 2035.
The expiration of copyrights for characters like Mickey Mouse and Batman will raise tricky new legal questions. After 2024, Disney won’t have any copyright protection for Mickey’s original incarnation. But Disney will still own copyrights for later incarnations of the character—and it will also own Mickey-related trademarks.
James Grimmelmann, a copyright scholar at Cornell Law School, tells Ars that this is an uncharted area of law because licensing practices for modern characters are “so much more intensive and so much more comprehensive now” than in the 1920s and 1930s. “We never had megacharacters in the same way” prior to the 1920s, he says….