Why are some cartoon shorts “public domain”?

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Why are some cartoon shorts “public domain”?

Post by ShyViolet » May 2nd, 2020, 6:17 am

I know it has to do with their parent studio not renewing copyright or something, but I’m kind confused as to why, say, a bunch of Loony Toons shorts would be considered public domain while others are definitely under the ownership/distribution of Warner Bros. :? :?: (There aren’t any Disney PD ones are there?)
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Re: Why are some cartoon shorts “public domain”?

Post by Randall » May 2nd, 2020, 10:32 am

The 1933 Mickey short The Mad Doctor is in public domain, because Disney forgot to extend its copyright when it was to be renewed in 1961, as copyrights in the US used to be for 28 years, and then could be renewed once for another 28 years. Disney later lobbied for legal changes that allowed further copyright extension in the 1970s.

Steamboat Willie enters public domain in 2024, when that copyright is now set to expire, presuming no further changes in the law. At that point, the early Mickey will be available for use by others. However, the Mickey Mouse name will still be protected under trademark law. Hence, someone will be able to include Steamboat Willie on a DVD, but cannot have Mickey's name on the cover. The early Mickey image could also be placed on a T-shirt, too, but not the name.

Any work may enter public domain if the rights holder failed to renew the copyright in time. In those cases, some films simply fell between the cracks. Once in public domain, no individual person or entity may claim copyright. Essentially, that work belongs to all.

In some other cases, the original copyright owner went defunct (e.g. the Van Beuren studio), without ever transferring the rights to anyone else, so those films lapsed into public domain long ago.

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Re: Why are some cartoon shorts “public domain”?

Post by EricJ » May 2nd, 2020, 3:04 pm

ShyViolet wrote:
May 2nd, 2020, 6:17 am
I know it has to do with their parent studio not renewing copyright or something, but I’m kind confused as to why, say, a bunch of Loony Toons shorts would be considered public domain while others are definitely under the ownership/distribution of Warner Bros. :? :?: (There aren’t any Disney PD ones are there?)
They're all considered Public-Domain--since the studio honchos at Warner didn't much care what happened to the shorts when they folded their theatrical-short division in the 60's--EXCEPT for what fans know as "the Saturday-morning cartoons". (Ie., why they never showed "What's Opera, Doc?" or "One Froggy Evening" on the afternoon local stations.)

The reason for that IS: Warner bought back a handful of the shorts in 1960 to create the prime-time "The Bugs Bunny Show", where the cartoons were joined with interstitials of Bugs on stage hosting his show. That applied to most of the Chuck Jones classics, and a few of the Sylvester & Tweety's, etc., but the Road Runner toons didn't join them until Friz Freleng tried creating a 60's spinoff Saturday-morning series mixing the old toons with the cheesy new made-for-TV ones. If you remember "The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Show" from 70's-80's Saturday morning, that's where most of those two shows went...Complete with Friz's Road-Runner theme ("Roooad-Runner...The Coyote's after you!") and all the Bugs-on-stage interstitials ("You said I could be on next week!...This week was next week last week!")

As for why the rest, particularly the early 40's cartoons, showed on afternoon local-station TV, that would be the same reason those same stations used to show Casper, Popeye, and Mighty Mouse--PD stuff was cheap. It was only after the 70's and into the Boomer 80's that Warner realized they had a pop-culture legacy on their hands.
Last edited by EricJ on May 2nd, 2020, 3:10 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Why are some cartoon shorts “public domain”?

Post by EricJ » May 2nd, 2020, 3:04 pm

Randall wrote:
May 2nd, 2020, 10:32 am
Steamboat Willie enters public domain in 2024, when that copyright is now set to expire, presuming no further changes in the law. At that point, the early Mickey will be available for use by others. However, the Mickey Mouse name will still be protected under trademark law. Hence, someone will be able to include Steamboat Willie on a DVD, but cannot have Mickey's name on the cover. The early Mickey image could also be placed on a T-shirt, too, but not the name
That could be why Disney is currently selling those made-for-cable "Retro-kitsch" ugly-imitation 30's designs of the characters from the Disney Channel show--

Disney has a LONG experience with ways around Public Domain--As we know from when they first started doing made-for-video sequels with old characters like Cinderella and Bambi, or new Mickey toons on their "House of Mouse" series, to jumpstart the characters for another fifty to a hundred years.

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Re: Why are some cartoon shorts “public domain”?

Post by Ben » May 2nd, 2020, 5:37 pm

I’m not going to get into this, but there are differences between copyrights, trademarks and registered marks.

Whereas, yes, the Steamboat Willie short will enter the public domain in 2024, you would need an original print and proof of ownership in order to make copies of it. You couldn’t just rip a DVD or Blu-ray or copy a Mickey compilation for new distribution.

But then, even if you did have a print (and it would have to be an original nitrate, since it could be argued that reprints contain later dated elements or changes that Disney's smart lawyers might be able to claim create a newer version copyright date), then you would be up against the use of a very influential company's intellectual property: Mickey himself, who would be argued is a trade or registered mark, and his likeness remains the same.

This would then put anyone trying to distribute Steamboat Willie knockoffs in murky waters, since they would be infringing the copyright of the *mark*, if not an actual film in which that mark appears. So t-shirts are also practically out too, unless one wants to have Disney come down on them for creating "inferior copies" of their registered intellectual property...

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Re: Why are some cartoon shorts “public domain”?

Post by Randall » May 2nd, 2020, 7:04 pm

This is a fascinating topic. Yes, it would come down to exactly what "mark" is protected, and how.

More to read. The fist one is a doozy, and discuses exactly how Disney has trademarked the Mouse. Plus, the very important "secondary meaning" and a discussion of Pooh.
http://copyright.nova.edu/mickey-public-domain/
So, yeah, it could be tough to get around any of that.

https://d23.com/this-day/walt-disneys-t ... nt-office/

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Re: Why are some cartoon shorts “public domain”?

Post by James » May 2nd, 2020, 7:40 pm

There's also the theory that Disney Animation Studios started using the Steamboat Willie production logo in 2007 in an attempt to make that version of Mickey into a trademark they could protect when the short itself goes public.

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Re: Why are some cartoon shorts “public domain”?

Post by ShyViolet » May 2nd, 2020, 8:37 pm

Wow, thanks for all the info you guys! Yes, it certainly is fascinating! :)
You can’t just have your characters announce how they feel! That makes me feel angry!

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Re: Why are some cartoon shorts “public domain”?

Post by EricJ » May 3rd, 2020, 4:49 am

James wrote:
May 2nd, 2020, 7:40 pm
There's also the theory that Disney Animation Studios started using the Steamboat Willie production logo in 2007 in an attempt to make that version of Mickey into a trademark they could protect when the short itself goes public.
Although, at the time they created the logo (wasn't it on '05's Chicken Little?), WDFA was going to be the "competing" CGI studio in Eisner's war against Pixar, and needed a corporate studio icon to out-Icon the Lamp.
And be honest, HAVE they ever shown us that many other Mickey shorts besides Steamboat Willie?

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Re: Why are some cartoon shorts “public domain”?

Post by Ben » May 3rd, 2020, 5:50 am

Lasseter created the Willie logo when he changed the name to WDAS, well after Chicken, which got its own version of the Pixaresque castle logo.

And I don’t buy that they used Willie as a logo to protect the film...copyright doesn’t work like that. They used it as the "big first" that it was, like the lamp in Pixar's logo. Also, that would only protect Willie (although it wouldn’t anyway) and not the many other Mickey cartoons that came out that same year and over the next few. Technically, Plane Crazy and Gallopin' Gaucho would become PD before Willie as well...!

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Re: Why are some cartoon shorts “public domain”?

Post by EricJ » May 3rd, 2020, 2:25 pm

Ben wrote:
May 3rd, 2020, 5:50 am
Lasseter created the Willie logo when he changed the name to WDAS, well after Chicken, which got its own version of the Pixaresque castle logo.
Oh, yeah, that's right, Lasseter first used the WDF(feature)A(nimation) logo on "Meet the Robinsons", which got every freshly liberated critic gushing over "Look, Lasseter cares so much about the Walt era, he put a Tomorrowland joke in the movie and even put that Walt quote on the end!"
(That, and using the vintage "Working for Peanuts" short to sell the new 3-D.)

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Re: Why are some cartoon shorts “public domain”?

Post by ShyViolet » May 3rd, 2020, 2:39 pm

I never cared a whole lot for the Steamboat WDAS logo; let’s be honest it IS in black and white:nothing wrong with that of course, but with only the pretty lame Wonderful World of Disney 1967-style fireworks logo that accompanies it, it just doesn’t catch the eye of the average moviegoer all that much, at least in my opinion. I understand they wanted to build ties to the past and all, but they could have done the same thing with a Brave Little Tailor Mickey. Who did way more stuff than just drive a steamboat.


Oh wow I didn’t know it was Lasseter’s idea to put the “keep moving forward” quote from Walt at the end of MTR. I’ve always thought that was really beautiful, so whatever else Lasseter did with that film, I’m glad that he at least contributed that.

Oops I forgot my main reason for posting lol! :P I was just wondering, is Gertie the Dinosaur public domain? If so, who owns the copyright and when does it expire?
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Re: Why are some cartoon shorts “public domain”?

Post by Ben » May 3rd, 2020, 4:16 pm

Director Steve Anderson came up with the Walt quote. He says that’s what actually inspired his take on the film and got him interested in writing at directing it.

Gertie theoretically is PD. Walt himself used a copy to recreate McCay's stage show version on an episode of Disneyland once. So Walt was good with using PD stuff, ironically...! ;)

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Re: Why are some cartoon shorts “public domain”?

Post by ShyViolet » May 3rd, 2020, 10:21 pm

What about the Fleischer shorts? I know the Popeye movie was released by Paramount in the early 80s right? Does that mean Paramount still owns the character? (Also wait, wasn’t that canceled animated Popeye from Blue Sky?) I know that Popeye still has some copyright connection to King Features Syndicate, so how exactly does that work out? :?

I’m also pretty confused about the classic Fleischer Superman shorts. I remember that for a long time they were considered public domain (I think) even though the actual comic book character of course belongs to DC, and the movies to Warner Bros. For years I remember seeing very inexpensive VHS tapes with the Superman shorts sold here and there, and later on the DVDs, this time including lots of other PD cartoons as well.

Not sure but I think in 2006 when *that* movie was released on the big screen, Warner Bros. cleaned up the visual look of the Fleischer shorts for a much better presentation. And they got the copyright to some or all of them. (At least that’s what I remember reading.)

Oh and that’s cool about Anderson. I found that part at the very end so touching and even teared up. :cry: :)
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Re: Why are some cartoon shorts “public domain”?

Post by Randall » May 4th, 2020, 12:09 am

The Popeye character is owned by King Features Syndicate, though the rights to the cartoons is more complicated. Take a look at the Wiki article about the cartoons, in the TV and home video sections, though I can't vouch for whether it is all correct. (It says the 1930s Popeye DVD sets were released by MGM, but those were Warner releases. I don't recall MGM being a part of the Warner-KFS negotiation.) A few of the Fleischer and Paramount Popeyes are actually in PD (and have appeared in many home video collections), but most are not.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Popeye_th ... television

The 1980 Popeye film was a co-production between Disney and Paramount, with each studio keeping some of the rights for distribution. Paramount has home video rights, at least in North America.

I would think that all of the Superman cartoons are PD, given all those home video collections that came out over the years. Once something lapses into PD, it cannot be reclaimed by anyone. Warner did some cleanup and released the shorts on DVD, but anyone with access to prints could have done so. I don't recall which material Warner had on hand to use.

The Betty Boops have a mix of owned and PD cartoons, as well. Olive released the copyrighted ones on disc.

All but one of the Fleischer Color Classics are in PD; that one cartoon is therefore missing from the Somewhere in Dreamland set.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Color_Cla ... r_statuses

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