Why Ryan Reynolds Can Use Winnie-the-Pooh To Sell You a Phone Plan
On January 1, 2022, the original Winnie-the-Pooh book fell into the public domain. That means any individual or corporation can now use the bear in new books or movies without paying a licensing fee to Disney, which has controlled the copyright to the character since the 1960s.
The next day, actor Ryan Reynolds marked the occasion with a YouTube ad for his wireless company, Mint Mobile. Reynolds read from a new book called Winnie-the-Screwed, about a bear who was paying too much for wireless service. “Like anyone with a big wireless plan, Winnie-the-Screwed just wants to keep some of his sweet, sweet money,” the book said. “But his money jar gets emptier and emptier with every monthly bill.”
In the 20th century, media companies built lucrative franchises around characters like Pooh, Mickey Mouse, Batman, and Superman. In the coming years, it will become legal for anyone—from aspiring comic book authors to actors hawking wireless service—to use these legendary characters for their own purposes. Mickey Mouse will become available for public use in 2024. Superman will fall into the public domain in 2034, followed by Batman in 2035.
For those who favor looser intellectual property laws generally and shorter copyright lengths specifically, these characters’ entry into the public domain is a long-overdue victory. But it’s also a preview of coming legal headaches and complications, especially with regard to some icons of pop culture. Though the new era will be messy at the start, the ultimate result will be a richer, more vibrant culture. Not only will there be more freedom for creators, but there will be more options for readers too.
Copyright Extensions? Oh Bother.
The Constitution requires that copyrights be granted for “limited times,” and the 1790 Copyright Act guaranteed protection for up to 28 years. The idea was to offer authors a brief monopoly to reward them for their creativity, then let creative works be freely available for the public to use.
By the time A.A. Milne published the original Winnie-the-Pooh book in 1926, Congress had doubled the maximum copyright term to 56 years. If that law had remained in force, Pooh would have fallen into the public domain way back in 1982. But in a series of bills from 1962 to 1998, Congress repeatedly extended copyright protection. It was spurred on by lobbyists representing copyright holders, such as The Walt Disney Co., which held still-valuable copyrights from the 1920s.
Thanks to those repeated extensions, some books and cartoons about Pooh are still under copyright. And that means only certain aspects of the Pooh franchise are available for public use. For example, the 1928 book The House at Pooh Corner was the first to feature Tigger. So if you want to make a cartoon with both Pooh and Tigger in it, you’ll need to either get permission from Disney or wait until that book falls into the public domain in 2024. And Pooh didn’t appear in a red shirt until 1932, so someone making a modern Pooh cartoon might want to pick a different color—at least until that copyright expires in 2028.
Indeed, the modern image of Pooh owes a lot to the cartoons Disney started making in the 1960s. Those cartoons won’t start falling into the public domain until the 2060s.
“If you’re making a new Winnie the Pooh cartoon, you need to be careful to base your drawings on the original book and not on any of Disney’s additions,” says Jessica Litman, a law professor at the University of Michigan.
So for the next couple of decades at least, artists who create independent books or movies based on these famous characters will have lawyers for Disney and other copyright holders looking over their shoulders. They’ll have to familiarize themselves not only with the public domain works they’re copying, but also the still-copyrighted works they’re not allowed to copy.
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Article from Reason.com