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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

These classic characters are losing copyright protection. They may never be the same.

A scene from the 1928 animated short “Steamboat Willie.” This version of the Mickey Mouse character enters the public domain on Jan. 1, 2024. (via The New York Times)

By Sopan Deb

If you’re the creative type and you’re struggling to come up with your next idea, do not fear: some big works, including the original version of Mickey Mouse, entered the public domain Monday in the United States.

And if, on the other hand, you prefer your Disney characters to be cute, cuddly and never-changing, well, ... you might want to stop reading.

In 2024, thousands of copyrighted works published in 1928 entered the public domain, after their 95-year term expired.

This means that those characters and stories can be remade — on the page, stage or screen — without permission. (Finally, I can make that Peter Pan musical where a middle-aged Peter laments unexplained back pains at the end of Act I.)

“It’s important for the preservation of our cultural record, for meaningful access to older works for inspiring future creativity,” said Jennifer Jenkins, director for the Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke Law School.

The creme de la creme of this year’s public domain class are Mickey Mouse and, of course, Minnie, or at least black-and-white versions of our favorite squeaky rodents that appeared in “Steamboat Willie.” The Walt Disney Co. is famously litigious, and this copyright only covers the original versions of the character.

The New York Times reached out to some writers, producers and directors to give you a taste of what might be unleashed in this strange new world.

Wilhelm II and Tigger too?

Tigger was also liberated Monday and could soon be reunited with Winnie-the-Pooh in the reborn character’s next slasher film. Yes, you read that right. In a preview of what could be awaiting other 95-year-old icons, the silly old bear became a sledgehammer-wielding monster in “Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey.” The sequel is slated for February.

“The original ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ was OK, but the horror of modern warfare will be much better illustrated with a crossover remake where Mickey and Tigger trick the Kaiser into getting his head stuck in a mop bucket,” said Zhubin Parang, co-executive producer for “The Daily Show.” (“All Quiet on the Western Front” — at least the original German version of the novel — also entered the public domain, although later translations are not ... yet.)

Hey, 1928 called. It wants all of these back

Then there’s J.M. Barrie’s stage version of “Peter Pan; or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up,” the D.H. Lawrence novel “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando: A Biography,” Wanda Gág’s picture book “Millions of Cats” and many more.

“I’m pretty annoyed to see that we’ll probably be getting more Peter Pan material now,” said Josh Lieb, a comedy writer and producer. “Nobody likes Peter Pan. In fact, I think I speak for all humanity when I say that we hate Peter Pan and we hate people who make movies about him.”

Not everyone hates Peter Pan — sorry, Josh. Bob Greenblatt, a producer of the Broadway-bound musical “Smash,” called for a new stage adaptation with Daniel Radcliffe as Peter, Lindsay Mendez as Wendy and Jonathan Groff as Captain Hook.

Actor Nik Dodani had a Peter Pan film idea too.

“When Wendy meets Peter, a charismatic and seemingly ageless young man, she is drawn into a nightmarish journey of obsession, unveiling the sinister truth behind his eternal youth,” Dodani said. (We couldn’t print the sinister truth. You’ll have to wait for the movie.)

Can I kick it with music, too?

Yes, you can! Musical compositions, like the original version of “Mack the Knife,” which was written in German for an opera by Bertolt Brecht called “The Threepenny Opera,” and musical recordings, including “Dippermouth Blues,” featuring Louis Armstrong, were also freed Monday.

“I often fantasize about the golden age of sampling where you could ostensibly lift the greatest riffs of all time with impunity. I’m looking at you, ‘Can I Kick It?’” Ryan Miller, a founding member of the band Guster, said, referring to the A Tribe Called Quest song. “Jan. 1, aka Emancipation Day, is now an annual ritual to dig into the mines with minimal guilt. I mean, who doesn’t need a new spin on ‘Yes! We Have No Bananas’? Don’t answer that.” (The recording of “Yes! We Have No Bananas” by Billy Jones will be available.)

I still don’t have any ideas. Help!

Not to worry. It’s public domain! Freedom! Steal away! Gordon Greenberg, who will direct a Huey Lewis-inspired Broadway musical this spring, said this was an opportunity to “re-imagine some classics from new points of view.”

Playwright Lindsey Ferrentino proposed a mashup of titles.

“Maybe a production of ‘Threepenny Opera’ with the character of Mackie Messer recast as Mickey Mouse. Very Brechtian,” Ferrentino said. “Don’t ask me to write it though.”

The steamy “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” sparked a lot of interest. Neil Meron, a producer of the Broadway musical “Some Like It Hot,” suggested “a gender-fluid immersive” musical adaptation with a score from Sam Smith.

Karen Chee, a writer for “Late Night With Seth Meyers,” pitched “Lady Chatterley’s Millions of Cats.” Ah, but let’s flesh this out! Chee added: “A lonely wife who forgoes sexy times to instead adopt millions of cats.” (Of course.)

From Bob Gale, co-writer of both the film and musical versions of “Back To The Future”: “Is Mickey the new lover of Lady Chatterley, or is he only a voyeur?”

And if that still isn’t enough to get you started, just wait. Over the next decade, freedom awaits all of these characters: Popeye; Pluto; Donald Duck; King Kong (the original film version); Superman; Daffy Duck; Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf and others from the Hobbit; James Bond; Batman; and Captain Marvel.

Get to work, people. And remember, “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.”*

*This song lyric is still under copyright until 2064.

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