Do you think you know Disney? Many of your favorite classic films were based on public domain stories (works whose copyright has expired). Much of the success of the Disney Corporation is a result of building upon the great works of the past.
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A movie, song or book enters the public domain when copyright on that work expires (or when it never received copyright to begin with). For most of American history, copyright durations were short which meant that all works would eventually enter the public domain so that other creators could remix and build them.
(There is no definitive list, this is based upon a Medium crowdsourcing project and will be updated. List should not be cited as authoritative source.):
1. Adventures of Huck Finn (1993) by Mark Twain’s book (1885)
Revenue = $24.1 million (revenue figures listed where available – based on wikipedia data).
2. Tom and Huck (1995) based upon The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain (1876)
Revenue = $23.9 million
3. Aladdin (1992) from a folk tale in One Thousand and One Nights (1706)
Revenue = $504 million
4. Alice in Wonderland (1951) by Lewis Carroll’s book (1865)
5. Alice in Wonderland (2010) based upon Lewis Carroll’s book (1865)
Revenue = $1.02 billion
6. Around the World in 80 Days (2004) by Jules Verne’s book (1873)
Revenue = $72.2 million
7. Atlantis (2001) from the Legend of Atlantis (Socratic Dialogues “Timaeus” & “Critias” by Plato ~360 BC.)
8. Beauty and the Beast (1991) by G-S Barbot de Villeneuve’s book (1775)
Revenue = $425 million
9. Bug’s Life (1998) from Aesop’s Fables
Revenue = $363.4 million
10. Cinderella (1950) from Charles Perrault’s folk tale (Grimm’s Fairy Tails) (1697)
Revenue = $85 million
11. Chicken Little (2005) from the folk tale
Revenue = $314.4 million
12. Christmas Carol (2009) from Charles Dickens (1843)
Revenue = $325.3 million
13. Fantasia (1940) scored and based upon Bach, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven & other classical compositions (however, “ The Rite Of Spring” was licensed)
Revenue = $83.3 million (22nd highest-grossing film of all time as adjusted for inflation)
14. Fantasia 2000 (1999)
Revenue = $90.9 million
15. Frozen (2013) from Hans Christian Anderson’s Ice Queen (1845)
Revenue = $810.3 million
16. Hercules (1997) from the Greek myth
Revenue = $252.7 million
17. Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) by Victor Hugo (1831)
Revenue = $325.3 million
18. In Search of the Castaways (1962) based on Jules Verne novel (1868)
Revenue = $21.7 million
19. John Carter (2012) based on A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1917)
Revenue = $284 million
20. Kidnapped (1960) by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)
21. Little Mermaid (1989) by Hans Christian Anderson (1837)
Revenue = $211.3 million
22. Lt. Robin Crusoe U.S.N. (1966) based on Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (1719)
Revenue = $22.5 million
23. Mulan (1998) from the Chinese Legend of Hua Mulan
Revenue = $304.3 million
24. Oliver & Company (1988) based on Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (1839)
Revenue = $74 million
25. Return to Neverland (2002) based upon Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie (1904)
Revenue = $109.9 million
26. Pinocchio (1940) by Carlo Collodi (1883)
Revenue = $84.3 million (39th highest grossing box office gross as adjusted for inflation)
27. Pocahontas (1995) from the life and legend of Pocahontas
Revenue = $346 million
28. Princess and the Frog (2009) from the Brothers Grimm folk tale The Frog Prince
Revenue = $267 million
29. Return to Oz (1985) from L. Frank Baum’s books
(When original Oz film was made it was under copyright. Disney purchased rights to all the books. But when Return to Oz was made it had entered the public domain.)
30. Rob Roy the Highland Rogue (1953) based on the Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott (1817)
31. Robin Hood (1973) from the English folk tales
Revenue = $87 million
32. Sorcerer’s Apprentice (2010) from the poem by Johann Goethe (1797)
Revenue = $236.9 million
33. Snow White (1937) from the Brothers Grimm folk tale (1857)
Revenue = $416 million (10th highest grossing film as adjusted for inflation)
34. Sleeping Beauty (1959) from the Charles Perrault folk tale (1697) (also with music/characters from Tchaikovsky’s 1890 ballet)
Revenue = $51.6 million) (31st highest grossing film as adjusted for inflation)
35. Swiss Family Robinson (1960) by Johann David Wyss (1812)
Revenue = $40 million (83d highest grossing film as adjusted)
36. Tangled (2010) from the Brothers’ Grimm fairy tale Rapunzel (1812)
Revenue = $591.8 million
37. Tarzan (1999) from Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1914)
Revenue = $448.2 million
38. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949) based on the Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving (1820) and Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (1908)
39. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) from Victor Hugo’s Book (1831)
Revenue = $325.4 million
40. The Lion King (1994) from Hamlet (1603) and inspired from a 1960s Japanese animated series called Kimba the White Lion
Revenue = $987.5 million
41. The Jungle Book (1967) by Rudyard Kipling (1894 copyright, movie released just one year after copyright expired)
Revenue = $205.8 million (30th highest grossing film with inflation)
42. The Jungle Book (1994 live action version) by Rudyard Kipling (1894)
Revenue = $43 million
43. Three Musketeers (1993) by Alexandre Dumas (1844)
Revenue = $53.9 million
44. The Reluctant Dragon (1941) based on the story by Kenneth Grahame (1898).
45. The Sword in the Stone (1963) from the Arthurian Legends
Revenue = $22.2 million
46. Treasure Planet (20002) based upon Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (1883)
Revenue = $109.6 million
47. Muppet Treasure Island (1996) based upon Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (1883)
Revenue = $34.4 million
48. Treasure Island (1950) based upon Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (1883)
49. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) by Jules Verne (1870)
Revenue = $28.2 million
50. White Fang (1991) by Jack London (1906)
Revenue = $34.8 million
51. White Fang 2: Myth of the White Wolf (1994) based on by Jack London (1906)
Revenue = $8.8 million
(Find an error? Tweet me at @DerekKhanna or join the Medium conversation).
What Happened to the Public Domain?:
The Founders’ copyright was for 14 years. But today, copyright terms have been regularly extended, quiet conveniently to ensure that the works of the Disney Corporation could never enter the public domain (and also keeping out thousands of other works). Current copyright law is life of the author plus 70 years.
But this is only part of the situation as copyright has been continually expanded to ensure that new works wouldn’t enter the public domain, what some have called “perpetual copyright on the installment plan.” Essentially while Disney’s empire was created in large part from the public domain, it has ensured that other future competitors could not re-use their material. This can be most clearly seen in this graphic created by Tom W. Bell.
The economists’ consensus has been in favor of a short term of copyright regulation. As Nobel Laureates Milton Friedman, Richard H. Coase, Kenneth Arrow and 13 other free market economists argued in their brief for the Eldred v. Ashcroft case, “[A] lengthened copyright term . . . keeps additional materials out of new creators’ hands” and ultimately results in “fewer new works.” There is an economic benefit from shorter copyright terms.
Historically copyright has been short, a government implemented property right created by statute that lasted only for “limited times” – as the Constitution requires. Available evidence of the Founding era suggests that not only was copyright historically short, but that the limited duration aspect of copyright was the original public meaning of what the instrument of copyright itself was: “COPY-RIGHT [sic], the exclusive right of printing and publishing copies of any literary performance, for a limited time.” (1803 English law dictionary).
Our Founding Fathers incorporated a modified version of the British legal conception of copyright, first in state laws, then through specific language in Constitution and lastly as implemented by statute in 1790 – creating 14 year terms with a 14 year extension. British law, state law and federal law all had similar term lengths in the founding era – when the Founders wrote “limited” their understanding of an acceptable limited term was 14 years.
James Madison and other founders referred to copyrights and patents as a form of government granted monopoly and explained that “Perpetual monopolies of every sort, are forbidden” including copyrights. Madison ominously warned that all monopolies, including copyright, must be “guarded with strictness agst abuse.”
No One Guarding Against Abuse:
In 1998, Copyright was up for it’s last copyright term extension, from life +50 years to life +70 years. Disney’s Mickey Mouse copyright had accounted for up to $8 billion in revenue in 1998 when they were lobbying for copyright extension. Disney’s Chairman, Michael Eisener personally met with then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. The day Lott signed on as co-sponsor of the bill, Disney’s PAC donated to Lott’s campaign. Within a month Disney also gave $20,000 in soft money to the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Of the 13 initial sponsors of the House bill, 10 received contributions from Disney’s PAC. On the Senate side, 8 of the 12 sponsors received contributions.
Senator Hank Brown (R-CO) would end up being the committee’s only opponent, he explains:
“I thought it was a moral outrage. . . There wasn’t anyone speaking out for the public interest.”
The Copyright Term Extension Act (The Sonny Bono Act) passed both Houses of Congress by voice vote.
Much of the success of the Disney Corporation was based upon public domain books. Under current policy, there will never be another Disney Corporation that was able to create derivative characters and stories based upon content whose copyright has expired because the availability or materials to use from the public domain stopped essentially in the 1930s.
Policy-makers should want ten Disney Corporations, not one Disney Corporation. In 2018 Congress will have to decide on whether to extend copyright to life + 90 to continue to keep Disney’s copyright out of the public domain.
While the House Judiciary Committee is going through a review of Copyright law, and the Registrar of Copyright has called for considering life + 50 with the remaining 20 years as an opt-in system, the content industry has been busy secretly negotiating a treaty, the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP), affecting 40% of world GDP to lock in US copyright at a minimum of life + 70 — thereby ensuring that Congress could not easily change our copyright terms to terms more consistent with the Constitution and based upon economics.
One of the Greatest Thefts in History?:
While Disney took and reused from the public domain, none of the works created by Disney, including derivative works based upon public domain works, has entered the public domain for others to build upon. If current policy is extended – then they never will. The content industry has argued that their copyright is their natural right property, something that the Founders never agreed with and our Constitution makes clear is not the case (See Cardozo Law Review article addressing topic).
Under the content industry’s logic they have argued that reusing others work without paying them is always stealing and they have pushed for more and more restrictions upon doctrines like fair use. One of the content industries’ most ardent supporters in Congress, Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) has even directly ridiculed the concept of fair use as being theft by comparing it to being “a little bit pregnant,” arguing “how do you go snip just a little bit of what somebody has created. . . we have to begin to look at this issue. . . not as just snippets but we have to look at it as theft.” The first Mickey Mouse film, SteamBoat Willie, was itself a parody of a Buster Keaton film Steamboat Bill Jr. (parody being a form of fair use).
If in the vernacular of the content industry, taking other people’s work without paying for it is always stealing, then the Disney Corporation is responsible for one of the greatest thefts in world history.