3 Ways Copyright Shaped Halloween

For boys and girls of every age, here's something REALLY strange...

It’s Halloween time again and what could be scarier than copyright?

To be fair, almost anything, but that doesn’t mean that copyright hasn’t played a critical role in shaping the stories we tell and the horrors that we fear.

After all, copyright is responsible for the zombies we know and fear, it played a hand in determining how vampires bite and it even forever changed how we view one of our most iconic monsters.

As such, we’re going to examine that relationship a bit and look at some of the ways that copyright shaped this spooky holiday, for better or worse. Along the way, we’re going to link to a few classic Plagiarism Today posts that cover the topics in more detail so you can get your fill of copyright-related thrills and chills.

1: Copyright Law Helped Create the Modern Zombie

Night of the Living Dead Poster

When you think of zombies in 2019, you most likely think of undead creatures that are slow, plodding and have an insatiable love for human flesh (or brains). However, prior to 1968, the image was much different as “voodoo zombie” was the common image and involved a person that was under some form of mind control.

What changed with George Romero and John Russo’s film the Night of the Living Dead. The movie is a seminal moment in horror history, in particular for zombie culture. However, a mistake in the film’s distribution caused the movie to be placed directly into the public domain upon release.

What this meant was the minds behind the film weren’t able to profit directly from it and other filmmakers had a large cannon of zombie lore they could legally tap into. Nearly every zombie film that has followed owes a debt to Night of the Living Dead and many of those films could not have been made at all if the original hadn’t been in the public domain.

In short, one simple mistake helped establish what is now one of the biggest and most popular horror genres.

Original Post: How a Copyright Mistake Created the Modern Zombie

2: An Attempt to Skirt Copyright Changed Vampires

Nosferatu Poster

Ever wondered why vampires die in the sun? The answer is because one ambitious filmmaker tried to skirt copyright law.

In 1916, while serving in Serbia during WW!, film producer Albi Grau got the idea to shoot a vampire movie. He attempted to acquire the rights to Bram Stoker’s Dracula but was rebuffed by Stoker’s widow.

He pressed forward with his film and made several changes in a bid to avoid a copyright infringement lawsuit. Key among those differences was that the film’s vampire, Count Orlok, was burned to death by the sun. In Dracula, vampires were not harmed by the sun, just slightly weakened.

In 1922 he released Nosferatu and was quickly sued in Germany by the Stoker estate. Despite his changes, he lost the lawsuit handily. This was in part due to the fact early versions of the film still used the Dracula name, making it difficult to claim it wasn’t a derivative work.

The film was ordered destroyed and most copies were indeed lost. However, one copy made it to the United States where the book was already in the public domain due to a copyright notice error (similar to Night of the Living Dead). As such, that copy would survive and Nosferatu would live on, becoming a cult classic and forever changing vampire lore.

Original Post: Dracula vs. Nosferatu: A True Copyright Horror Story

3: Copyright Changed How We View Frankenstein’s Monster

Boris Karloff Frankenstein

Published in 1823, Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein has long lapsed into the public domain. Anyone is free to do with that work as they wish including downloading it for free, selling it, making derivative works based upon it, etc.

However, you probably want to be careful about how you portray the story’s monster.

The reason is that the book itself is actually scant on details about the monster’s appearance. However, the image most of us have of the monster, featuring a flat top head, a bulging forehead and two bolts, actually comes from a 1931 film by Universal Pictures and that image is very much protected by copyright (at least for the next eight years).

This has drastically changed how the monster has been depicted in cinema with later adaptations having to avoid the details that made the Universal version of Frankenstein’s monster so iconic.

As a result of this, other versions of the story have struggled to create a version that is both recognizable as the monster and not infringing on the Universal version.

Original Post: How Universal Re-Copyrighted Frankenstein’s Monster

Bottom Line

It really shouldn’t come as a surprise that copyright has shaped Halloween and horror. Copyright strives to help creators protect and benefit from the fruits of their imagination and, in the process, shapes the stories we tell, how they’re told and when they’re told.

While copyright does prevent some stories from being told, it also forces us to come up with new ones and it pushes creators to come up with new creations that aren’t based on the ones that came before. Whether this is a positive or a negative likely depends on your view, but it does mean Halloween was bound to be influenced by copyright law.

As such, you can do a similar examination of just about any element of our culture and get similar answers. Copyright law often impacts our culture, sometimes with small nudges and other times with big shifts, but it is always there.

With that in mind, have a spooky and infringement-free Halloween!

Further Reading

Interested in even more copyright and Halloween stories? Check out the Plagiarism Today Halloween collection, which includes these stories and several others to read through.

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