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Sherlock Holmes and Winnie the Pooh Now in Public Domain

Sherlock and Winnie
now in the public domain,
Mickey Mouse next year

Every year on January 1, new works enter the public domain. In 2023, all literary works, musical compositions, and movies first published or released in 1927 entered the public domain in the United States.

Earlier works were already in the public domain.

As the University of California explains,

After March 1, 1989, all works (published and unpublished) are protected for 70 years from the date the author dies. So, for example, the unpublished works of an author who died in 1943 are in the public domain as of January 1, 2014. For works of corporate authorship (works made for hire), the copyright term is the shorter of 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation.

As we discussed way back in 2014, “Sherlock Holmes” author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published his first Holmes work in 1887. His last Holmes work was a short story published in 1927. All but 10 of Doyle’s Holmes stories were published before 1923. 

In 2014, the Doyle estate, which controlled the copyrights to the works, argued that Holmes was a “complex” character who evolved over time and that his character shouldn’t enter the public domain until ALL the Holmes works did.

Judge Richard Posner of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals rejected that argument, saying:

When a story falls into the public domain, story elements – including characters covered by the expired copyright – become fair game for follow-on authors.

Now, of course, all Holmes stories are public domain.

Winnie the Pooh, published in 1926, entered the public domain a year ago. However, Tigger (the tiger) didn’t appear until The House at Pooh Corner (published in 1928) and thus is still under copyright.

A filmmaker took advantage of the lapsing Pooh copyright to make a low-budget horror film entitled Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey, scheduled to be released in February.

As the New York Times reported, “Steamboat Willie,” the 1928 eight-minute short film that introduced Mickey Mouse, will lose copyright protection in the United States and a few other countries next year.

As the Times notes,

This nonspeaking Mickey has a rat-like nose, rudimentary eyes (no pupils), and a long tail. He can be naughty. In one “Steamboat Willie” scene, he torments a cat. In another, he uses a terrified goose as a trombone.

This means that as of January 1, 2024, the original short film can be copied, broadcast, and adapted without Disney’s permission.

However,

Later versions of the character remain protected by copyrights, including the sweeter, rounder Mickey with red shorts and white gloves most familiar to audiences today. They will enter the public domain at different points over the coming decades.

Also, Mickey Mouse is protected by trademark law as well as by copyright law, and trademarks (unlike copyrights) never expire if companies use and maintain their property.

As the Times explains,

In 2007, Walt Disney Animation Studios redesigned its logo to incorporate the “Steamboat Willie” mouse. It has appeared before every movie the unit has released since, including “Frozen” and “Encanto,” deepening the old character’s association with the company. (The logo is also protected by a trademark.)

It’s important to note that different countries have different laws for when a work enters the public domain. Thus, if (for example) you want to release your new Sherlock Holmes movie on Netflix (which has a global audience), that movie can’t necessarily legally be shown outside the US without the permission of the Doyle estate.

Also, derivative works based on works in the public domain are still independently protected under copyright law. I.e., you can now freely adapt the Sherlock Holmes short stories in the US, but you can’t sell unauthorized copies of the Benedict Cumberbatch 2010 BBC series Sherlock.

Similarly, sound recordings of musical compositions from 1927 and earlier may still be protected by copyright law, depending on when they were released.


Just like the haiku above, we like to keep our posts short and sweet. Hopefully, you found this bite-sized information helpful. If you would like more information, please do not hesitate to contact us here.

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