What’s about to go out of copyright?
The first day of every year marks the expiration date of copyrights for older works. The technical term for this is, ‘entering the public domain’.
Essentially, these once protected creative works can now be reproduced without the consequence of having to pay rights, royalties or a licence fee. Although the length of a protection of copyrights varies by country, in the UK and US, a piece of work enters the public domain seventy years after the death of its creator (or in the case of multiple creators, seventy years after the death of the last surviving creator).
Notable works entering the public domain in 2024
This year, thousands of copyrighted works from 1928 will enter the public domain. Although these works were technically published 95 years ago, the reason for their delay in entering the public domain was the lobbying in the US by Disney and other copyright holders to extend the copyright term to 95 years. The American Congress passed the 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act and a further 20 years of protection was added, with expiry falling in 2024.
Predictably, the reason behind the lobbying by Disney is that the very first illustrations of ‘Mickey and Minnie Mouse,’ specifically in ‘Steamboat Willie’ have entered the public domain for the very first time on the 1st of January 2024. Other works include Agatha Christie’s ‘The Mystery of the Blue Train,’ the songs of Hank Williams, the silent film, ‘The Circus’ starring and directed by Charlie Chaplain and the stage version of ‘Peter Pan’ by J.M Barrie (previously owned by Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children).
What does this mean for these creative works and for those interesting in reproducing them?
From the 1st January 2024, any member of the public can now produce a derivative work using the original content or characters with their own creative spin in a perfectly legal manner.
In taking Mickey Mouse as the example, you can now freely share, copy and build upon the original Mickey featured in ‘Steamboat Willie’ from 1928, however, it must be done in such a way to ensure that it does not mislead consumers into thinking your works are produced or sponsored by Disney, as this will infringe upon trademark laws, and you must not use newer copyrightable versions of Mickey, such as the version featured in Fantasia’s ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ from 1940, as these are yet to expire.
Is there anything that companies can do to protect their creations?
A potential area for a loophole would be that although copyrights expire, trademarks do not, and can be renewed every ten years in the UK, US and the EU. Many companies are now building up their stack of trademarks related to the products and the characters as a way of keeping indefinite control.
Although companies may try and protect their works, or the works of a former creator, it is inevitable that after the prescribed period, a copyright on a piece of creative work will expire and the work will enter the public domain. On the one hand, the positive impact that the emergence of these works will have on society will enable others to build upon them and present new versions, allowing the cycle to continue. On the other, the ability of the outgoing right holders to commercially exploit the copyright will be entirely undermined such that early planning for alternative means of protecting and exploiting associated intellectual property rights will be crucial.
If you would like any further information or advice, please contact Dawn McKnight from our Commercial team.
*This information is for guidance purposes only and does not constitute, nor should be regarded, as a substitute for taking legal advice that is tailored to your circumstances.