In 1998, the U.S. government amended the Copyright Act of 1976 to extend the protection of copyrighted properties for 70 years following an author's death.
Known as the Copyright Term Extension Act, this bill not only extended the protection of future and living works, but retrospectively updated the copyright duration of works and properties published before 1978 for 95 years. This means the properties of iconic authors and auteurs of 1926 entered the public domain as of Jan. 1.
However, the copyright extension laws of the European Union protect properties and works 70 years after death (or 'plus life'), which means copyrighted materials of those who died in 1951 are now available in the public domain for the U.K. and Europe.
Notable Properties Entering the Public Domain in 2022
(U.S.) "Winnie-The-Pooh" by A.A. Milner
(U.S.) "The Sun Also Rises" by Ernest Hemingway
(U.S.) "Bambi, a Life in the Woods" by Felix Salten
(U.S.) "The Land of Mist" by Arthur Conan Doyle
(EU) "The Wendigo," "The Willows," "Incredible Adventures," "The Doll and One Other" by Algernon Blackwood
(EU) "Mutiny on the Bounty" by James Normal Hall
(EU) "The Bells of Nagasaki" by Takashi Nagai
Notable Properties Entering the Public Domain This Decade
(EU) "Goodnight Moon," "The Runaway Bunny," and "The Color Kittens" by Margaret Wise Brown
(U.S.) "Metropolis" by Thea von Harbou
(U.S.) "To the Lighthouse" by Virginia Woolf
(U.S.) "Steppenwolf" by Hermann Hesse
(U.S.) "Trolley Troubles," starring Walt Disney's Oswald the Lucky Rabbit
(U.S.) "Buck Rogers in the 25th Century" by Phillip Francis Nowlan
(U.S.) "Popeye" by E.C. Segar
(U.S.) Mickey Mouse in "Steamboat Willie," and "The Gallopin' Gaucho" by Walt Disney (1929 animation)
(U.S.) "The Cocoanuts" (1930 film)
(U.S.) “A Farewell to Arms" by Ernest Hemingway
(U.S.) "Frankenstein" (1931 film)
(U.S.) "The Maltese Falcon" by Dashiell Hammett
(U.S.) "All Quiet on the Western Front" (1931 film)
(EU) "How to Win Friends and Influence People" by Dale Carnegie
(EU) "A Death in the Family" by James Agee
(EU) The paintings of Yves Tanguy
(U.S.) "Conan the Barbarian" by Robert E. Howard
(EU) "Little House on the Prairie" by Laura Ingalls Wilder
(U.S.) "King Kong" (1933 film)
(U.S.) "Flash Gordon" (1934 comic) by Alex Raymond
(U.S.) Donald Duck in “The Wise Little Hen" (1934 animation) by Walt Disney
How Does This Impact Licensing?
With the likes of Batman (2034) and The Joker (2035), Superman (2033), Winnie-the-Pooh (2022) and globally renowned origin stories heading to the public domain in the future, the conversation will naturally turn to copyright protection for brands still engaging millions of fans.
However, the arrival of copyrighted works to the public domain does not mean modern iterations of classic characters or properties are free to use. Nor does it impact trademark law. The public domain strictly surrounds the original iterations of each title and the published works of the time.
Ensuring the authenticity and values of various IPs such as "Steamboat Willie" or "Winnie-the-Pooh" may be a new challenge for brands; however, the protection offered by trademark law and long brand histories will undoubtedly favor the licensor.
An influx of well-known, public domain properties offers independent creators more freedom to adapt a wide range of classic content while helping brands support new talent and storytellers in adapting historic IPs.
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