Steamboat Willie and ‘Pirate Jenny’ enter the public domain

Cultural works from 95 years ago can now be copied, mashed up and reimagined as their copyrights expire.

By Shelly BrisbinJanuary 5, 2024 3:00 pm,

Public Domain Day is among the annual milestones the beginning of each new year brings. On Jan. 1,  a new group of cultural works created 95 years ago lose copyright protection.

Now, anyone can copy, republish and redistribute these characters, written works, or music, as they like. And with AI in the mix, 2024 has already brought some… interesting and ambitious reimaginings of familiar artifacts. 

The new public domain works include the first version of Mickey Mouse, Peter Pan, the original German version of the novel, “All Quiet on the Western Front” and much more. 

Glenn Fleishman is a reporter and printing historian. He joined the Standard to discuss and says key legal rulings are responsible for each year’s new collection of public domain works. But the law is very specific about what aspects and versions of those words, films, songs and compositions now belong to all of us.

Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below. 

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity: 

Texas Standard: I understand you’ve been tracking and writing about copyrighted works entering the public domain for many years. What got you interested in these cultural turning points in the first place? Why do they matter so much? 

Glenn Fleishman: It’s a funny thing. There’s so many copyright oddities. That’s what drew me in.

I’m a freelance reporter, so you look for a some kind of interesting thread, and when you pull the thread on things like the history of Sherlock Holmes short stories, for instance, which gradually entered the public domain recently – but some of the stories were protected even when the rest of the work had already entered the public domain in the United States… Or “Bambi”, which is a ridiculous story that involves fleeing from Austria to Switzerland. Walt Disney, a hero of Israel who was married to this daughter of the guy who wrote the story. Like it goes on and on.

And so I got intrigued by all these stories around copyright that had become extended beyond what people originally expected. And that led me into a deeper study of the public domain itself. 

And then this remarkable event happened just a few years ago, where after a long period in which nothing entered the public domain in the United States by year, suddenly there was this great opening because a period had ended, and we’re now in this glorious efflorescence of new material every year for the next several decades. 

A case in point might be what a lot of folks are talking about right now with Mickey Mouse. That character clearly evolved over the decades. But as I understand it, the character that’s coming into the public domain this year is one iteration of Mickey Mouse. We should be clear about that, right? Or else Disney’s attorneys are going to be on it. 

Yeah. Just like Winnie the Pooh, you know? Was he wearing a red shirt or not last year?

There’s an aspect that got decided, actually, in a case involving Sherlock Holmes – it’s the case of Sherlock Holmes that I wrote about a few years ago for The Economist. The Sherlock Holmes estate had been very litigious, and represents some of Arthur Conan Doyle’s, uh, like, not direct descendants. It’s also a very complicated story. And, someone had want to produce a new book of Sherlock Holmes kind of riffs. And they said, “clearly, we can use Sherlock Holmes because the early works are falling into the public domain.”

So in this lawsuit, it went to appeal. And the great jurist Richard Posner wrote this detailed response, and it said that you actually can’t copyright a character as a whole. So Mickey Mouse, as he appears in “Steamboat Willie” or other works in 1928, that is a character in its entirety. And that character has certain characteristics.

And so this appeals decision, which was never overturned, says that characteristics can accrue over time. So maybe Mickey Mouse starts wearing white gloves later, or maybe he becomes cheerier, or maybe his depiction changes. So a 1940 depiction of Mickey Mouse, if it’s substantially different, could still have the basis of copyright protection interest. This 1928 version would still be available for free use. 

But in the case of Mickey, the Steamboat Willie iteration, it’s already been remixed quite a bit, I understand. I’ve seen some of these, uh, it looks like a slasher film starring the steamboat version of Mickey Mouse. Did I pick up on that right?

I know there’s a slasher Winnie the Pooh from last year that got terrible reviews that I have not seen. I don’t know if anyone had something in preparation. It would be perfectly legal if last year or at any point, you had created something with that version of Mickey or around that version of Mickey and had just released it after Jan. 1. 

This gets to an underlying philosophical debate about when, or even whether, in the case of some people, these works which were created by the labor and energies of someone else… whether they should be released into the public domain at all, or whether companies or estates should be able to retain control over the intellectual property rights. Why is there this tug of war and what does it mean culturally that these new properties are coming up this year? 

Well, there’s a constitutional right in the United States for work to be protected, but only for a limited duration, and people have argued a lot in court about what “limited duration” means, as Congress extended and extended that period.

And it varies in other countries, obviously, but there’s been this sense that you, as a creator, are producing work that goes into culture and you have a limited period of time in which you can exploit a patent, a copyright, certain other kinds of expressive means. After that point, the culture into which you released it then has the rights to do other things with it. You don’t lose your right to do your own things with it, or to have extended on that for years and produce new copyrighted works.

The regime is totally changed so it’s much more confusing in the modern era. But in this period we’re talking about, it was the idea that at some point, culture becomes the property of society, and society, having fostered it, then gains the rights to work with what has changed us.

So copyright becomes a transformative thing. We’re allowed to interact with the tools, with the ideas that have affected who we’ve become and form new ideas from them. It may not be a totally inherent American thing, but it is certainly something that is deeply embedded in our constitutional and statutory law, that culture is something that can’t belong to any one person. You only have a finite time in which you can own a piece of culture. 

» RELATED: What expiring copyright protections mean for our media landscape

What else is hitting public domain in 2024? I know a lot of folks have focused on Mickey Mouse. But Tigger, too?

Tigger, too. Right.

Well, because authors obviously wrote over long periods of time, each year new books of will enter. So we have “House at Pooh Corner,” which introduces Tigger, coming into the public domain this year. So they can finally get back together and produce new memes – new and exciting memes.

The “Peter Pan” one is fascinating because the book was published much earlier that the stories were based on for the play. Even though it was staged for years, the play wasn’t published in the sense that’s required to establish a copyright until 1928. So in the United States, “Peter Pan” the play is now available for free production. 

I am also a big fan of “Threepenney Opera.” I don’t know where I got the interest in it. I think maybe listening to – Kate Bush had a version of it and other musicians have covered the “Pirate Jenny” song and, so the Dreigroschenoper is the German title. Only the German text has entered the public domain this year. So you could do any translation if you want, but you can’t take an English translation that was copyrighted later. 

And it’s not just “Steamboat Willie,” but a bunch of interesting films, like “The Wedding March,” and “The Man Who Laughs,” which was a fascinating film that may have inspired the Joker character in Batman. 

We also have music. Music recordings were protected by a separate right called the “phonogram right.” And it was locked up. All recordings from the dawn of audio recording were locked up until just a few years ago. This is the first year that we start a rolling unlocking of this music into the public domain of sound recordings. And then there’s also music compositions. 

There’s just a lot of stuff across categories. The thing I find fascinating is how modern some of this seems, even though it’s 95 years old. There are songs that I grew up knowing and even works that are contemporary and people read every day. 

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