Copyright questions... How many years til its public domain and free for all?

I assume that any books created prior to the twentieth century are now in the public domain. That would explain the fact that one doesn’t have to pay royalties to put on plays based on Shakespeare’s works, Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, Huckleberry Finn and even the Wizard of Oz. (Indeed, the recent movie “League of Extrordinary Gentlemen” was entirely made up of characters from the 19th century.)

But I am a little confused as to which 20th century books/characters are now in the public domain. What about the story of Tarzan or Peter Pan? Is there a difference between a copyrighted work such as a book, and an actual character which can be trademarked like Superman, Nancy Drew and Mickey Mouse?

Is there a certain number of years a book, song or play is protected under copyright before it becomes free for all to use?

What if I wanted to download a song, but wanted to avoid infringing on copyright? Are songs recorded at the turn of the century okay? How about old recordings from the teens or 1920’s?

How long before I can stage a production of “Show Boat” (1927) or “Naughty Marietta” (1910) or “Babes in Toyland” (1903) without paying royalties?

Generally, anything copyrighted in the US prior to 1923 is in public domain. Copyright currently lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years.

In theory, a revival of “Show Boat” should be PD, but you’d have to use the original script; any changes would be under copyright protection.

Peter Pan is a special case: A special law was passed in GB granting a perpetual copyright to a children’s hospital. According to treaty, that law applies in the US, so it’s out of bounds.

Superman, Mickey Mouse, etc. are trademarked, meaning you can’t use them to create a story around (though they can be mentioned peripherally). Even if the first Superman story becomes public domain, using Superman is a trademark violation.

As far as songs go, there are two copyright issues: the song, and the performance. If the song and performance are PD, then you can download all you want. However, it’s possible for, say, the New York Philharmonic to copyright their performance of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony and you cannot download that legally. You can still find the sheet music and perform it without any copyright issues. And an old recording from the 20s is probably PD.

Actually the “We Own the Government, so Worship the Mouse or Piss Off” copyright extension act ends up making copyright in the USA thus:

In essence, Disney can just shell out more money, buy more votes, and effectively make US copyright eternal.

This is, of course, antithetical to the value of copyright to a society. Any corporation who can’t make enough money off something after owning it for 50 years doesn’t deserve to keep it, anyway.

Tells us more on this.

Naughty Marietta and Babes in Toyland are out of copyright and in the public domain – as long as we are talking about the pre-1923 books, lyrics, and orchestral arrangements. As you may know, sometimes shows are reworked with new songs, revised lyrics, new orchestrations, or revised books.

The 1927 version of Show Boat will be under copyright for 95 years, through 2022.

Corporations have not been allowed to contribute to congressional election campaigns since Theodore Roosevelt was president.

Blame Disney all you want, the main impetus for extending the U.S. copyright terms was to bring them into alignment with copyright terms in the European Union. This has been an ongoing and incremental process for several decades.

European recommendation for a corporation is 70 years after publication not 95. In the UK, it’s currently 50 years after death or 50 years after publication.

As for an “ongoing and incremental process”, so has the erosion of fundamental civil rights in the USA. Why do you think that the erosion of fundamental civil rights in the USA is a good thing?

And how long has it been illegal for coorporations to contribute soft-money to the state political parties?

Oh, crap, this is GQ. The answer to the OP is that it currently stands at 95 years, but this is subject to revision by acts of congress, who thus far has seem fit to ensure that Mickey Mouse doesn’t fall into the public domain.


Don’t be ignorant. The law was changed because of Adoph Hitler, not Disney.

Why is it wrong for Disney to make money from Mickey Mouse (which, incidently, they own because of trademark, not just copyright) and right for someone else to? Because Disney is big and you’re not?

Basically, the argument is “I’m not talented enough to make my own creation, so I need to take someone else’s.” It’s the complaint of the talentless. If you really had any creative talent, you wouldn’t need to use other people’s characters.

Because this is GQ, let’s go to the cites:

This page has a nice clear chart of copyright provisions.

This more lawyerly page is a little less clear, but notes the relevant laws and has more footnotes and exceptions.

As both of them show, the law does not distinguish between an individual and a corporation for works copyrighted, registered, and renewed that were originally created between Jan. 1, 1923 and Dec. 31, 1977

And remember the difference between copyright and trademark. If the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act (no sniggering; that’s the actual name) had not been passed to square up US law with the Berne Convention then it is true that the earliest Disney cartoons would start falling into the public domain.

But all that would mean is that you could show or sell the individual cartoons without asking Disney permission or paying royalties.

The characters in those cartoons, including Mickey Mouse, are protected under trademark, so that you could still never use them in your own works.

So to answer the OP, yes there is a distinct difference between a work of art and a recogizable character. Assume that any character that has become famous enough for you to know of is protected by a trademark, and trademarks, unlike copyrights, are forever.

Oh, and for international copyright durations, This Australian page has both an interesting summary of the history of UK and US copyright extensions and a listing of various provisions in countries around the world.

So what happened to bob kolody and coca-cola? Large corporations can do as they please.