Until the 20th century, works of art both great and small typically went from being owned by their creators to being owned by no one – or, perhaps more accurately, to being owned by everyone. In the public domain, a movie, song, or book can be reprinted or utilized by anyone at any time, without needing permission. But when the mid-1970s rolled around and the copyright to original Mickey Mouse cartoon Steamboat Willie was about to expire, Disney lobbied hard to secure a copyright extension that delayed the expiration of Steamboat (and tons of other non-Disney works) for years after their originally intended time.
We’re now approaching another deadline. If studios don’t plan to lobby Congress this year to pass another extension, then every book, film, and song published in 1923 will enter the public domain on January 1, 2019. What might that mean for Hollywood?
Strap in, because it’s time to learn some shit about copyright law.
The extension that was granted in the 1970s meant that individual creators were awarded copyright protections that lasted the length of their lifetime plus fifty years. (This was the copyright policy that was adopted by Europe at the time.) For corporations, those extensions stretched even further, to 75 years for things like movies and television broadcasts.
Studios like Disney lobbied to get yet another extension in the 1990s. In 1998, Congress passed the Copyright Term Extension Act (also known as the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act”), meaning that any work created in 1923 that was still under copyright protection in 1998 would receive an extension until 2019. And with that deadline now coming up, ArsTechnica did some research to see if Hollywood might rally for their cause yet again. As of now, it seems as if studios are finally willing to let those 1923 works enter the public domain. (The short version: people are far more aware of copyright claims now, organizing grassroots movements to stop things like SOPA back in 2012, so there’d likely be much larger outcry now and studios probably don’t want to deal with the headache of fighting this battle with the public.)
But what would that flood of older content into the public domain mean for Hollywood studios and producers? In all likelihood, not that much. For example: a version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame from 1923 would come into public domain if no extension is passed, but the Victor Hugo story on which it’s based is already in there, so it’s not like producers are waiting around for that to happen so they can start shooting their remake. Plus, over the past few years, we’ve seen studios cling to recognizable properties in the desperate hopes that audiences would be interested based on the name alone. But after years of being pummeled with underwhelming adaptations like Snow White and the Huntsman, audiences may finally be getting wise to that trend; the box office failure of things like King Arthur: Legend of the Sword last year could indicate that studios may need to look beyond just simple name recognition to find a hit.
But let’s imagine for a minute that Mickey Mouse himself were to enter into the public domain. It’s doubtful that a rival studio like Sony would be able to make a movie featuring that character, because Disney still has a trademark on that character. They may be able to use his partial likeness, but I don’t think they’d be able to use his name; and if that’s the case, what would be the point in using the character at all?
Of course, things are a lot different now than they were in the 1970s or even the late ’90s. The internet’s steady stream of remixes, fan fiction, and other content that uses copyrighted works or characters without permission has significantly blurred the lines and muddied this entire issue. In these cases, it falls to the copyright holder to actually enforce against the usage of their property – as anyone who’s ever tried to use a musician’s official song in their personal YouTube videos probably discovered long ago.
The Steamboat Willie copyright isn’t set to expire until 2024. Disney CEO Bob Iger (a man who’s arguably acquired more intellectual property than any other executive) recently extended his contract until 2021, so he’ll likely be gone by then. But in the shadow of the man who brought Pixar, Marvel, and Lucasfilm under Disney’s roof, is his successor really going to allow one of their most famous creations to slip into the public domain? Come back in 2024 to find out for sure, but that doesn’t seem likely.