This is a message I will be sending to my congressional representatives, senators, representatives, and any lobbyists I can locate. I am sharing this around Facebook so others can also share the following and direct it to their own government officials. I have left out “to and from” names so my readers can better customize this message for their own leaders (and the lobbyists for those leaders).
I see a Government Spending problem related to the Public Domain. Across the 20th Century, and most recently in 1998, the Walt Disney Corporation (and many other companies) has successfully lobbied Congress to extend the public domain so they wouldn’t lose the rights to Mickey Mouse and famous movies. This had some… unpleasant side effects. Any work, be it scientific paper or poetry that has no locatable author cannot be shared. These are called “Orphan Works,”. If they cannot find the owner of an existing copyright, they cannot share the publication. So there are many more works available from the 19th Century than the 20th Century. I can personally scarcely name anything from the past 115 years that is free to the public. And the longer a work is kept on the shelf, the more surely it is forgotten. That’s why I think we need a way to secure Mickey and other pet projects that doesn’t trample over anyone else. And I believe that the solution has inadvertently been handed down by Disney’s existing business practices.
But first, let’s look at the benefits of the Public Domain. As you read this, I invite you to think back on the gems of your childhood. Who would you like to see revisited? Who would you like to revisit them? What would you like to see done with them? And ask yourself, are any of your ideas for them possible with copyright laws as they are right now?
Updating for the times: Sherlock Holmes, anyone? 2 TV series on different networks by different companies both in the modern day and as many movies being released at the same time? He has been in over 200 projects, despite being loathed by his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He’s in the Public Domain, so if you want him to encounter Frankenstein’s monster or a dragon, there’s a novel or an independent film already waiting for you. Or perhaps you want to see him updated, facing threats in the modern day, not using Opium pipes, and having romantic undertones with a male or female or robotic Dr. Watson. I don’t know of any Robotic precedents for the pairing, but BBC’s Sherlock and CBS’s Elementary have you covered for the other two, and there’s a robotic Dr. Watson aiding Holmes in the 22nd Century. And if Moriarty only faced him twice in Sir Doyle’s stories, how did he become such an enduring foe across generations? Other creators insisted on using him until he became a prerequisite challenge for Holmes to Overcome. Alan Moore even had him face off against Mr. Hyde, Mina Harker, Alan Quartermain, the Invisible Man, and Dr. Nemo. Each of these protagonists also exists under the Public Domain. Though by this point I’m so saturated in Sherlock Holmes I’m very eager for newer sandboxes to play in. I can see where Sir Arthur was coming from.
And what about redeeming something in the public’s eye? Say for instance, the film “It’s a Wonderful Life?” Christmas has recently come and gone, and did you see it again this year? Jimmy Stewart’s classic only became a classic after it entered the public domain. That way it was free to air for cash-strapped TV stations. Before that, it was freely and widely distributed every Christmas it was considered garbage, a massive flop. So much so that the studio did not bother to renew the rights to it. Disney has several such films, especially from the 70’s and 80’s. “The Cat from Outer Space” (1978), “Black Hole” (1979), “The Watcher in the Woods” (1980), and perhaps most infamous, “Return to Oz” (1985). If Disney chose to shed these projects, only then could they could develop a proper following.
And if they chose to sell any properties to the public domain, they can make profit off of the present nostalgia for the Disney Afternoon, the after school programming block aired in the early to late 90’s. Or Disney’s One Too, their Saturday Morning Programming Block. Even though there’s no indication that the Walt Disney Corporation has any intention of making projects of their own with these, & most programs made for this block were never touched again by the Disney corporation in any medium. And right now there is a generation of emerging young adult consumers who have these properties etched in their minds. And Disney has bought Marvel, which bought Malibu comics for Malibu’s printer technology (I am not even kidding.) As a result of this questionable business, the writers and artists at Malibu were fired, and a short-term replacement of Marvel staff was briefly implemented. After the subsequent floundering, the Malibu line was officially scrapped. A shame, considering that the Men In Black movies were adapted material from Malibu comics. If the American government makes each character worth a small sum from the federal government, and their native franchise for a larger lump sum, then mega corporations like Disney and Warner can stop sending so much money to the Federal Government, and start getting more back. Whoever fights for this in Congress will be quite popular indeed with the public AND the private sector.
And let’s not forget what Disney has to gain from bringing more works into the Public Domain. Metro Goldwin-Meyers’s “The Wizard of Oz.” After the Disney corp. released an adaptation of the sequel novel, Disney released an original Prequel. Then in an episode of their “Once upon a Time” TV series, the Wicked Witch of the West from the Wizard of Oz movie was a guest villain. The company was able to achieve all this legally because the “Wizard of Oz” book was already in the Public Domain. Disney is clearly very interested in this film property, more so than MGM. Imagine what they could do with access to the movie too. But if they continue extending length of time that rights are held onto, Disney will never get the original movie, or any other adaptation of the Oz books. So what’s the solution?
Ironically, Disney’s existing business practice has provided a golden opportunity to solve this problem of theirs.
Disney’s accidental solution was to reuse, reuse, reuse their more favored properties and then reuse them again. Massive Crossovers like Disney’s House of Mouse and Kingdom Hearts have brought many of Disney’s classics back to the public consciousness, and reimaginings like Descendants and Once upon a Time brings them back in the workshop again to come out with a new twist. To say nothing of the massive count of Direct to Video Sequels, and made for TV sequel series under their belt. When Disney has something they’re proud of, they keep bringing it back again and again and again to make a quick buck. And they are hardly the only studio that does that.
And that’s the key. If studios are set on milking existing popular franchises more often than making new ones, then copyright protections should reflect that. By setting the expiration date for rights is based on the last date of use, then existing business practices protect what lobbying studios wish to hold onto, and free up everything else for everyone else to work with creatively. Presently, working within a deadline to hold onto rights is a staple of the movie industry. In order to not lose film rights, Fox Studios has made 3 Fantastic 4 movies. Rise of the Silver Surfer is the only movie under that banner made just for the sake of making a movie.
But what about properties that that major corporations are less than fond of? Well, after 20 years then they should become public domain. The public is rewarded with new potentials in the arts, and large corporations have one less need to spend money less often, and gain ample ways to make more money.
My proposal is to redefine the terms of the Public Domain as follows.
- If a character or series has not been in use for the past 20 years, it becomes Public Domain, unless it’s an adaptation of a creator owned property.
- Individual characters will also be held for only 20 years after their last use.
- If a company prematurely cedes a property, they receive a subsidy from the Federal Government.
That last point can be a boon to companies from other nations as well. I’m thinking in particular of companies like Konami and Sega who have turned their focus away from making new franchises and are instead producing slot machines instead. Sometimes companies like these have even forgetting outright what some of their biggest properties like Streets of Rage, a very popular franchise in the states at the time.
Now this doesn’t help independent or retired creators. Anyone with creator owned properties would quickly lose their meal ticket, or they would have to hold onto that same ticket for most of their lives. So I think an exception is in order for them.
- Give the creator/owners the old 56 year limit (as extended around the 1950’s) before their own rights expire.
- If an adaptation of a creator owned work (say Disney’s “The Rocketeer”) hits that 20 year deadline after the last time the corporate owner uses the adaptation, then the rights to said adaptation go to the creator(s) who own(s) the original work for the remainder of their 56 year hold on the property.
- When those 56 years are over, they too become public domain.
Now with individuals still living longer than they did in the 50’s, I leave how long an individual citizen should hold onto creator ownership rights up to some debate.
This new nature of new releases though, has some restrictions.
- New installments must have narratives, it’s not enough to put Mickey Mouse on a new doll or a pinball machine.
- Storylines must be added as canon, or extended prior narratives, or the property (or characters within) must appear in a crossover, like Kingdom Hearts.
- If the adaptations should be released from corporate hold after the original creators’ 56 year hold, then the adaptations go straight to public domain.
- And rereleases of preexisting works do not count, each release must be something new.
- “15 years ago, Congress kept Mickey Mouse out of the public domain. Will they do it again?” by Timothy B. Lee for the Washington Post; October 25th, 2013. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2013/10/25/15-years-ago-congress-kept-mickey-mouse-out-of-the-public-domain-will-they-do-it-again/?utm_term=.48fcb42d57e8
I hope you get back to me about my proposal, soon.
(Your name here)