Warner Bros. recently won a copyright infringement case against a number of companies that had been using images from classic movies such as The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind. The defendant had used these images on various consumer products-shirts, posters, and lunchboxes. Warner Bros. immediately retaliated by filing for infringement. The defendant claimed that the source material was in the public domain and as a result a copyright no longer existed on those works. This question was laid to rest by the higher courts. They ruled in favor of Warner Bros.
One of the ongoing debates in the copyright space is how long a copyright exists. The copyright scheme has been reworked numerous times over the last few decades to meet demands by big conglomerates. Colloquially known as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act due to Disney’s influence over the process, legislation has brought forth many changes dealing with the duration of copyright. Since the Copyright Act of 1976, copyright protection was for the life of the owner + 50 years. Now, it has been extended to 70 years.
Once the allotted time comes to pass, the work shall be placed in the public domain. In other words, this means that the work can be freely used by anyone. Another wrinkle to all of this is that there are complexities such as how the new 70-year system affects copyrighted works that are close to expiration. There are other such nuances that overcomplicate the matter. The bottom line is that although the benchmark--life of the owner + 70--is the norm, there are ways around this.
Big media conglomerates such as Disney and Warner Bros. have time and again taken full advantage of this disordered system. Through effective lobbying mechanisms, these corporations have been able to continuously extend the length of the copyright. This is how certain copyrighted works that have long passed their expiration are still given legal protection.
Now let’s take The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind. Both of these works have yet to hit the 70 year mark. Although The Wizard of Oz source material--a collection of books written by L. Frank Baum--has long expired, the movie rights remain in effect. Warner Bros. has ownership over these movies and as long as it is within the respective length of time, it shall be given full protection. The courts have ruled with this basic principle in mind.
Copyright law shall remain in effect as long as protection is warranted, which is determined by the duration of the copyright. Similarly, if the work falls outside this period of time, then it is in the public domain. As neither The Wizard of Oz nor Gone with the Wind have yet to fall within the public domain, the owner has a right over them and can initiate lawsuits over anyone who impermissibly makes use of the work.
Fair Use and Transformative Work
A defense to a copyright infringement claim is the fair use doctrine. Under this oft-used defense mechanism, the defendant can legally make use of the original work under certain situations. If the work is used for a noncommercial or nonprofit purpose, then the courts might give the defendant the benefit of the doubt. Another way of invoking the fair use defense is if the work has been altered or modified to such an extent that the new work is “transformative” of the source material.
For example, a transformation occurs when the Mona Lisa painting is used as a cartoon character. With the imagery used from the aforementioned movies on different consumer products, it is hard to say if it is transformative to the point of triggering fair use. It is up the jury to decide this matter. Also, as the consumer products are generating revenue, the courts might view this as impeding on the copyright holder’s commercial worth and would dismiss the fair use for this reason alone.
There are many avenues for the defendant. Fair use is but one. Of course, licensing through an intermediary which takes care of licensing on behalf of Warner Bros. would also work too. At the end of the day, individuals need to heed caution when they make use of a copyrighted work; otherwise there can be harsh consequences.
Authored by Sam Behbehani, LegalMatch Legal Writer