5 Spooky Articles About Copyright and Halloween

As many long-time readers likely know, most Halloweens I help operate a neighborhood haunted house and, as a result, I usually take some time away from the site in late October.

However, for the past few years, the haunt has been closed. In 2019, it was due to road work on my street and both 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic. This year, for the first time since 2018, we will be open, and we couldn’t be more excited.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of last-minute stuff to do before Halloween weekend, so I will be stepping away the rest of the week. But, before I go, I wanted to leave you with five tales of how copyright has shaped Halloween that I’ve written over the years.

If you want a more complete list of the Halloween-related articles that have been featured on this site, check out this post from October 2021. However, if you want more of a highlight reel, this article should help get you started.

1: How a Copyright Mistake Created the Modern Zombie

Night of the Living Dead is possibly one of the most famous public domain movies of all time. However, that wasn’t how it was meant to be released. 

When the film was released, the print was missing a copyright notice. Under the laws at the time, this mean that it didn’t have copyright protection. This was a disaster for those that made the film, including many of the actors who also backed the project, but was a boon for the zombie genre.

The film ultimately ended up writing the template for the modern zombie film, and it’s unclear if that would be the case if the film had been protected by copyright. 

On a personal note, I was fortunate enough to meet Judith O’Dea, who played Barbra in the film, at a conference. I’m working on an updated look at this film, including efforts to get some degree of control back, that simply isn’t ready yet. 

2: Dracula vs. Nosferatu: A True Copyright Horror Story

One of the most important films in horror movie history is the 1922 film Nosferatu. However, due to a copyright infringement lawsuit filed by the widow of Bram Stoker, Florence Stoker, the movie almost didn’t survive at all.

There wasn’t much double that Albin Grau got the idea to shoot Nosferatu from Dracula and that many of the elements between the two overlapped. This prompted Florence Stoker to sue, a case she won handily with an order that all copies of the film be destroyed.

However, at least one copy made it to the United States, where the original book was already in public domain. That copy was preserved and is the basis for all copies of the film we have today. 

The article also looks at changes Grau made to unsuccessfully avoid that lawsuit, such as the vampire being killed by sunlight and vampires killing their victims rather than turning them into vampires. Many of these elements have become common elements in vampire lore, all created in a bid to avoid infringement.

3: How Universal Re-Copyrighted Frankenstein’s Monster

The book Frankenstein, written by Mary Shelley in 1818, has long lapsed into the public domain. However, the most iconic image and version of the monster featured in that book is very tightly controlled by Universal Pictures.

The reason they were able to do this is simple. Shelley didn’t go into great detail in describing the monster. So, when Universal crafted their version of the monster for their 1930s-era films, they gave the monster a distinctive look that they still control to this day.

Though they can’t stop others from making Frankenstein films, they control what is the most iconic version of the monster and have a long history of targeting those whose monsters are a bit too close to their own. 

4: Copyright and Metropolis

The 1927 German Expressionist film Metropolis has had one of the most unusual and convoluted histories when it comes to copyright, at least in the United States.

Direct by Fritz Lang, Metropolis is one of the best-known films from the silent era. However, it lapsed into the public domain in 1953 after the owners failed to renew their copyright registration, which was required at the time. The film went on to be a cult classic, including being featured in the music video for Queen’s song Radio Ga Ga

However, in 1994, the United States signed a series of agreements that resulted in the film getting its copyright status restored in 1996. After 43 years of being in the public domain, it was now protected by copyright again. 

The case even spawned a Supreme Court battle, where it was eventually decided that Congress does have the authority to remove works from the public domain, letting the law stand.

However, that copyright is not long for this world as it expired this year, meaning that it will formally end on January 1, 2023. 

5: Understanding Copyright, Trademark and Halloween Costumes

Finally, one of the ways copyright (and trademark) have their biggest impact on Halloween is through costumes. However, it’s also one of the most misunderstood.

You can walk into your favorite Halloween shop and find a myriad of costumes clearly meant to represent popular characters but carrying names like “Juice Demon” (instead of Beetlejuice) and “One-Eyed Master’s Helper” (instead of Minion).

The reason for this comes down to copyright and both the limited copyright protection costumes get, but the much more broad protection their trademarked names do.

It’s an interesting area of nuance that incorporates the nuance of copyright and fashion design and mixes it with trademark issues. 

Bottom Line

All in all, I hope everyone has a safe and happy Halloween that is free of infringement and legal obstacles.

I will return November 2nd with all new content and updates on everything that happened while I was gone.

So enjoy the spooky season, and I will see you in about a week!

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