I’m writing this in early 2021. Over the past several years, something wonderful has happened each January 1st. In the United States, the copyright expires on an expansive collection of works. There was a long period of time when nothing expired, with copyrights repeatedly being extended, protecting works like Steamboat Willie from entering the public domain. In three years, we’ll see that enter the public domain. Disney probably isn’t too worried about that, as Mickey Mouse and Steamboat Willie are both trademarks – even without their copyrights, their connection to the Disney brand is very well established, and one would need to be extremely careful about making use of it.
So what does this mean for geekdom? I’ve frequently heard that it is now possible for there to be a Muppet Great Gatsby. That might not be the best of ideas – I don’t think the world is ready for Kermit the Frog to host debauched parties and be found dead in a swimming pool (I think if something is out of copyright, it is also out of spoiler protection….)
One of the great things about going to grad school is it gave me access to extensive collections of online newspaper and magazine archives that were still under copyright. I’ve missed having that access since graduating, so every January is a cause for new celebration, as anyone can now publish reproductions of newspapers up to and including the year 1925. As a frequent Call of Cthulhu keeper and player, this is most excellent news – another year open for research, inspiration, and photos to use
It also becomes possible to use these materials in gaming products – you can go ahead and use the front page of The Boston Globe from July 15, 1925, in your Call of Cthulhu game if you’d like.
You could also use a public domain work as the basis for an RPG or supplement/adventure. However, this is where you would need to exercise a lot of caution – while copyright can expire, an actively used trademark does not. For example, in 2012, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. sued Dynamite Comics for the
ir comics adaptations of various public domain Burroughs stories – not claiming copyright infringement, but trademark violation. (The likely fate of any who have a Steamboat Willie RPG waiting for publication). The parties eventually settled out of court.
However, for me, I doubt I’ll get into any legal trouble using advertisements from 1925 newspapers in my next game.
~ Daniel Stack
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