On January 1, 2022, works that were first published in the year 1926 lapsed into the public domain. Though the list of works that includes is long, some bigger names include Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and Dorothy Parker’s Enough Rope.
However, the name that’s received the lion’s share of the attention has been A.A. Milne’s original Winnie-the-Pooh story.
The reason for the attention is pretty obvious. Disney acquired the rights to the book and its characters in 1961 and, since then, has released a steady stream of movies, TV shows and products featuring the book’s cast of characters.
Because of this, Winnie-the-Pooh is one of the most recognizable cartoon characters in the world. Disney’s animated works are still being heavily enjoyed today by adults and children alike and the character has even found itself in international news as a way for bloggers to troll Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Winnie-the-Pooh is likely the most culturally relevant character to enter the public domain since 2019, when works started entering the public domain again in the United States due to the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act. This has raised widespread speculation as to what this means for Disney and the character’s future.
However, while some headlines sure make it seem like the situation is pretty dire for Disney, the truth is that not a lot changed on New Year’s Day and Disney probably doesn’t have that much to fear from what did.
What Actually Happened
Under U.S. copyright law, works of corporate or pseudonymous authorship lapse into the public domain after either 95 years from first publication or 120 years after creation, whichever ends first.
What this means is that the Milne’s original Winnie-the-Pooh book is now free of copyright. This means that others are free to copy, publish, distribute, create new works based upon it and otherwise make use of it without a license. That is, potentially, a big deal in many ways.
It means that, for example, if a company other than Disney wanted to make their own animated adaptation of the work, they could. Anyone could also publish their own version of the book, either with the original art or new art that they created.
However, the freedom only extends to that particular book and that which is contained in it.
Milne actually wrote four books based on the character and books 2-4 have not lapsed into the public domain. This means that many of the characters from the series, most notably Tigger, have not lapsed and will not for a few more years. In fact, the image of Pooh wearing a red shirt was not published until 1932, meaning, much like Frankenstein’s monster, those seeking to exploit the public domain work may want to be careful about how they portray him.
Perhaps more importantly, this lapse does not impact any of Disney’s works. Disney did not release its first animated work based on the character until 1966, meaning that there are still four decades of copyright protection left on those.
Disney’s works and Disney’s versions of the characters are still very much protected and those that seek to exploit Winnie-the-Pooh will need to be careful to avoid those interpretations. The easiest way to do that would be to stick to the original work.
However, most people aren’t going to have a strong connection with that original work. The characters, in particular the line art drawings, look very little like the versions we know today and, though the book is still popular, it is far less recognizable than the Disney works.
For Disney, very little changes other than the prospect of competing adaptations of the original work. However, that’s something that I doubt they fear.
So What Can You Do?
One of the more interesting takes on this issue came from actor Ryan Reynolds. In a new add for Mint Mobile, he introduced a parody version of the character entitled Winnie-the-Screwed, where the lead character is upset about overpaying for his phone bill.
However, if you watch the commercial, it is limited to what is in that original book. It uses the art style and the meter of the original work, as well as the designs of characters from that book. Though it’s seen as a jab at Disney, it doesn’t actually use anything that Disney created.
Still, creations like this as well as fresh adaptations of the original work are possible now. Also, as the later books lapse into the public domain over the coming years, they too can be adapted similarly.
As a result, 2022 may not be much of a revolution for the character but, as the decade rolls along, we may see more adaptations of those work.
Some of those, like Reynolds, will be for comedy or novelty, but others may be more straightforward. Only time will tell.
Disney is probably not worried about this work lapsing into the public domain. Their versions of the character are still very protected and what one can do with the characters in the story is very limited.
That said, this is something of a canary in the coal mine. In 2024, the cartoon Steamboat Willie will enter the public domain. That was the first appearance of Mickey Mouse. As important as Winnie-the-Pooh is to Disney, Mickey is an even bigger deal.
Disney and others will be watching over the next few years to see what the practical impacts of this transition are for Winnie-the-Pooh as a sign for what may happen in two years.
It will be interesting to see, that much is certain.