Public Domain Day 2022: Shirtless Winnie the Pooh

On the first day of 2022, every copyrighted work from 1926 (excluding sound recordings) entered the public domain. This means that no party has an exclusive claim to these works anymore, and anyone can now freely use the work with no restrictions, even commercial ones. Notably Winnie the Pooh, whose license was formerly owned by Disney, is now open for creative use by anyone. However, only one specific version of Winnie the Pooh is in the public domain, the one who appeared in “Winnie-The-Pooh” in 1926, written by A. A. Milne and E. H. Shepard. His appearance within this book was as a naked bear that loved honey, which is the version that is now free to use.

One specific book entering the public domain, however, does not enter every future iteration of the work into the public domain. His appearances from later books, or characters introduced in later books, are still under copyright. Tigger, who first appeared in “The House at Pooh Corner” in 1928, is still owned by Disney, as is Pooh’s famous red shirt, virtually synonymous with the character today. Bambi, a Life in the Woods, Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, Buster Keaton’s Battling Butler, and Agatha Christie’s Murder of Roger Ackroyd additionally leave copyright protection, alongside many other works.

The entrance into the public domain can be a huge boon to creators. Artists have already been flocking towards Winnie the Pooh, eager to legally create and sell their interpretations of a character functionally identical to the one from their childhood. And last year’s release of The Great Gatsby inspired creativity from both fanfiction writers and published authors, like Michael Farris Smith’s “Nick”, a prequel to F. Scott. Fitzgerald’s seminal work. Working with existing characters can be advantageous for creators, allowing them to leverage preexisting knowledge of characters in their material, as can be seen in the preponderance of wacky adaptations of Jane Austen, incorporations of Alice or the Mad Hatter, or books like “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.”

Copyright protection can be very important to creators and rights holders, as it allows them complete control over how their creations can be used, and who can use them. A strong copyright system allows symbols to be used exclusively by their owners, preventing any confusion of their meaning by unauthorized parties. They are given exclusive rights to reprint or reproduce the work, sell the work, create derivatives, and publicly display or perform the work. And conversely does not allow non-copyright holders to do any of these without express permission. A strong copyright law theoretically gives the creator more power over their work, and a means to monetize it. Additionally, a strong copyright law incentivizes creatives to develop original works that they can themselves exclusively own.

However, copyright can be controversial. Among the most criticized aspects of American copyright law is the length of time for which it remains in effect. The time frame has drastically increased from 28 years in 1790 to up to 120 years, or 70 years after the death of the author, with the passing of the 1998 “Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act.” The act is mockingly referred to as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act, as it delayed Mickey Mouse’s entrance into the public domain following Disney’s extensive lobbying campaign. Each of these extensions applies retroactively, which has drawn criticism for its lack of benefit to creators. By the time these extensions pass, almost everyone who created the work the bill is relevant to be dead. Instead, the benefit goes solely to the copyright holders. Copyright holders are meant to use their time to create and innovate, but as Hank Brown — one of few minority dissenters in the Senate during the discussions for the Copyright Term Extension Act — said:
"To suggest that the monopoly use of copyrights for the creator's life plus 50 years after his death is not an adequate incentive to create is absurd, the real incentive here is for corporate owners that bought copyrights to lobby Congress for another 20 years of revenue—not for creators who will be long dead once this term extension takes hold."

With that extension passing, works were locked away while the 20-year buffer slowly ticked on. Only recently have creations started to enter public domain, with some very important entrances happening soon. Mickey Mouse’s first appearance, “Steamboat Willie”, is now expected to enter the public domain in 2024. This will be 96 years after it’s creation. A new extension may happen soon, considering how much value major media companies like Disney have placed onto their superhero properties, many of which were created in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s. Without this copyright term extension, Superman would have entered public domain in 2013. At the very least, it looks like the first appearance of Mickey (and Minnie!) will finally become free. Until then, create Winnie the Pooh fanfiction to your heart's content, just make sure he isn't wearing a red shirt.