In what must be unsettling news for storytellers of all kinds, Warner Bros. has recently won a legal battle over the copyright to The Wizard of Oz. Why is this such an issue? Stick with us, because it's a little tricky.
Public Domain is a legal concept which states (we're going to be brief and broad here, since it's a complicated issue) that intellectual properties are no longer the property of a certain individual, even the author, after a set period of time. That period of time varies from country to country, and depending on the circumstances. In America the time limit varies from 75-120 years. Frank L. Baum's children's novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is now 111 years old, and pretty much in the public domain. A variety of Wizard of Oz movies, including Sam Raimi's prequel Oz, The Great and Powerful, are currently in development now. But public domain ain't what it used to be…
In a recent legal kerfuffle with nostalgia merchandise vendor AVELA, Warner Bros. came out more-or-less on top. AVELA was selling Wizard of Oz publicity materials which Warner Bros. claimed violated their copyright on the original film. But these publicity materials – which have 'public' in the title – were not themselves copyrighted. Warner Bros. lost that battle, but the war? They won that.
Hollywood Reporter reports that the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals found in favor of Warner Bros. on the following point: whether or not Frank L. Baum's original book is in public domain, the depictions of the characters of Dorothy, The Tin Man, The Cowardly Lion and The Scarecrow – and all the rest – are the property of the movie studio. To put it another way, you can make a Wizard of Oz movie all you want, but if the characters look anything like their depictions in the classic original film, then you have just violated Warner Bros.' copyright.
It's safe to assume that the makers of Oz, The Great and Powerful are scrambling right now to make sure they don't get their asses sued. But the decision is likely to have a lasting effect on other productions. Anybody making an Alice in Wonderland movie will need to make certain their characters are nothing like the Walt Disney versions, for example. If anybody ever remakes Tarzan they'd better make sure the protagonist doesn't looke like Johnny Weismuller, and Dracula will no longer be allowed to look anything like Bela Lugosi and so on.
Scary precedent. Parodies probably remain safe, but one thing's for certain: public domain ain't what it used to be.
CRAVE Online will be back with more legal mumbo jumbo, because we think you can handle the truth.