Toto, I Don't Think We're In The Public Domain Anymore

from the copyright-backdoors dept

Long-time readers may remember our coverage of a slow-moving copyright case over public domain images from The Wizard of Oz and other movies. In brief: back in 2006, Warner Bros. sued vintage/nostalgia merchandise company AVELA, which had obtained restored images from old promotional posters for the films and was selling them for T-shirts and other products. Nobody disputed that these specific images were in the public domain, because the promo materials had not been registered for copyright even though the films were -- but Warner claimed that the images nevertheless infringed on the copyright in the characters established by the film. The court originally sided with Warner in full, but on appeal found that the exact two-dimensional reproductions of the images on T-shirts and the like were not infringing, but instances where they were combined with text and other images or used to create three-dimensional models were, and awarded some pretty huge damages. To complicate matters, there's also a trademark claim wrapped up in all this. There was another appeal, and now a court has upheld the ruling and the damages, giving movie studios another weapon in their war on the public domain (here's a PDF of the full ruling).

Now, there are a lot of layers here, and I'm going to focus on The Wizard Of Oz, since it provides the most interesting example. The 1900 book is in the public domain. The 1939 movie is still under copyright held by Warner. The associated 1939 promo materials were not registered (a requirement at the time) and are in the public domain. And many characters and other elements of the movie are also covered by trademark, also owned by Warner. Absolutely none of these facts are in dispute -- but put them all together and you have a giant mess that illustrates the flimsiness of the idea/expression dichotomy, and how something can supposedly remain in the public domain while being gutted of all its usefulness to the public.

Let's consider the line the court drew between different kinds of use, because it's one of those things that makes a certain amount of legal and logical sense but produces an utterly absurd result. Basically, the court said that Warner can't stop someone from making unmodified reproductions of material that is undisputedly in the public domain -- that is clearly non-infringing -- but since that material includes images of characters from a work that is not in the public domain, modifying it (by combining it with other images or turning it into 3D objects) violates those other copyrights and becomes infringement. The existence and limits of character copyright are highly complex and questionable to begin with (Warner does not in fact own the characters, because those are from the book, but only the original elements of the film's expression of those characters) but if you believe in them to any extent this makes some sense: a single image of a character entering the public domain does not invalidate all copyrights associated with that character. But... consider what this means: if you are remixing copyrighted material, making your own creative changes to it weighs in your favor in a determination of infringement; if you're making use of public domain material, creative changes might magically turn it into infringement. That's not how the public domain is supposed to work.

This latest ruling is mostly upholding the last one, so let's go see what the court said in 2011:

The film actors' portrayals of the characters at issue here appear to rely upon elements of expression far beyond the dialogue and descriptions in the books. AVELA has identified no instance in which the distinctive mannerisms, facial expressions, voice, or speech patterns of a film character are anticipated in the corresponding book by a literary description that evokes, to any significant extent, what the actor portrayed. ... At the very least, the scope of the film copyrights covers all visual depictions of the film characters at issue, except for any aspects of the characters that were injected into the public domain by the publicity materials.

Damn those publicity materials, "injecting" content into the public domain! Now, I have a few questions about this. How does an image on a T-shirt infringe on a film character's mannerisms, voice or speech patterns? Of that list of distinguishing characteristics, only facial expressions apply -- individual specific facial expressions captured in images that are in the public domain. And could we perhaps get some slightly narrower wording than "at the very least the scope of the film copyrights covers all visual depictions of the film characters"? Because goddamn.

Let's say you were inspired (as many have been) by the character of the Tin Woodsman, and wanted to create something to celebrate him. What can you do? Well, you can start with L. Frank Baum's original description:

Just before them, was a very big tree that had been partly chopped through, and standing right beside it, with an uplifted axe in his hands, was some sort of a man, yet made entirely of hollow tin. He was slightly rusted, but he was a tin-smith's masterpiece nevertheless. His tin head and arms and legs were all jointed upon his tin torso, but he stood perfectly motionless, as if he could not stir at all. This was one of the most astonishing things that Dorothy had ever come across in all her young life.

That's definitely in the public domain. So far so good. But perhaps your fondest memories are visual — his pointy nose and his steam-pipe hat! Well, fair enough, because that's all there in the original illustrations from 1900:

Okay, you're still in the clear! This piece of our shared culture is over a century old, and it belongs to us all to enjoy and repurpose as we see fit -- as it should. But hey, in your research, you've come across something interesting: original movie posters from 1939 that were never registered for copyright! Obviously the creators didn't see a great deal of long-term commercial value in their promotional materials, and were happy to let them live in the public domain. You are especially fond of one of the images -- another illustration of the Tin Man, based on his portrayal in the movie, which was itself based on the earlier illustrations:

Perfect! Not only is that image in the public domain due to lack of registration, its most identifiable elements are virtually identical to the original illustrations, so you doubt it would even qualify for much copyright protection in the first place. You put it on a T-shirt. Everything's still fine, and you still haven't infringed a single copyright. But... something's missing. A final touch. Perhaps a short line of text, his most famous quote -- a six-word sampling, hardly enough to infringe on anything by any reasonable standard. Voila! Your final product is complete:

STOP! THIEF! You've gone too far this time, chump. Yes, somehow that final step turned this from a perfectly legitimate use of public domain material into a grievous infringement on the rights of Warner Bros. You are no longer simply using a public domain image, you are using the mannerisms (maybe?) and voice (uh...) of a copyrighted character to create a new work. Basically, it feels like the court badly wanted to just give Warner the farm and block all uses of the images, but had to begrudgingly admit that it couldn't stop the most direct and obvious cases of reproducing something in the public domain -- so it settled for stopping everything else so long as there was the tiniest, flimsiest reason to argue it infringed on the film.

To make things weirder, a trademark claim was involved too. In some ways, this claim was much stronger: Warner owns a variety of trademarks on material and images from the film, and the court reasonably found a likelihood of confusion for consumers who might think the products are official Wizard Of Oz merchandise. But the law already includes an important caveat, via the Dastar ruling, to prevent this sort of perpetual-copyright-via-trademark -- and the court knocked that down with some granular interpretation:

Images of the film actors in character and signature phrases from the films are not communications, concepts, or ideas that the consumer goods embody as Dastar defines these terms. Products marketed under AVELA’s licenses employ iconic film characters’ pictures to associate the products with Warner’s films, not to copy the film itself. Accordingly, these are trademark claims, not disguised copyright claims, and Dastar does not bar them

Dastar basically says that the right to reproduce public domain material without attribution trumps any claims that doing so is a false designation of origin ("reverse passing off") in violation of trademark law, by clarifying the narrow definition of "origin" -- stating that it does not mean the origin of the ideas and concepts in a work, but the actual commercial origin of a specific product. Somehow, Warner convinced the court that these T-shirts were not copying the content of the film but were in fact associating themselves with the official creators of the film and confusing consumers as to the origin of the product, and thus the trademark claim is still valid.

How can both these things be true? If the public domain images of the characters are not communications, concepts or ideas as defined in Dastar, and were not used to "copy the film itself," then how can their use be subject to a claim based on the character copyrights from the film? And if they are somehow infringing on copyright, how are they not protected from a trademark claim by Dastar? Yes, you can tease out a legal interpretation that technically resolves this paradox -- but you can't make it sound any less stupid.

We all know that Warner Bros., Disney, and pretty much every other company that has made a fortune by mining the public domain for material will stop at nothing to make sure future generations can't do the same. The courts need to stop letting them get away with it, but that's unlikely when we've got judges talking about things being "injected" into the public domain -- as though entering the public domain was some rare, undesirable aberration, not the default state and ultimate fate of all content.

Filed Under: copyright, public domain, trademark, wizard of oz
Companies: avela, warner bros.


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Nov 2016 @ 11:48am

    “[products] that each juxtapose an image extracted from an item of publicity material with another image extracted from elsewhere in the publicity materials, or with a printed phrase from the book underlying the subject film, to create a new composite work” are infringing

    In other words the court is saying that you cannot create a new work without infringing multiple copyrights, as every new work will have phrases and ideas from multiple sources.


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