There’s something odd going on in media reporting on the expiration of Disney’s copyright on the initial version of Mickey Mouse that is set to occur in 2024. Given the subject matter, we’ve talked Mickey Mouse quite a bit on this site, specifically noting the “coincidence” of copyright term extensions that have occurred roughly each and every time Disney’s copyright was about to expire. The context in this throat-clearing is, essentially: Mickey Mouse should have been in the public domain years and years ago but isn’t because Congress keeps extending the term so it never occurs.
Well, while some are theorizing that the odd spate of media posts we’re suddenly seeing now about how Mickey’s earliest versions are going into the public domain soon is part of some campaign to extend copyright terms again, there is actually very little evidence for that. But whatI found interesting about these stories is how many of them were framed: lamenting the loss of Disney’s copyright instead of celebrating the addition to the public domain. Here is one example, headlined Disney Might Lose Copyright To Mickey Mouse As First Version Of Iconic Character Reached Public Domain In 2024.
First, that headline sucks. Might lose? Will lose, actually, unless Congress quickly extends copyright terms. Second, get a sense of how this is all framed with this quote as an example.
But sadly, the first version is going to enter the public domain very soon. The silver lining is that Disney might still hold on to some rights if they can make a trademark of the first Mickey Mouse version, states a report by Deutsche Welle.
What fresh bullshit is this? Disney got sweetheart deals in the form of extensions in copyright terms over and over again, and now we’re “sad” that those sweetheart deals have run their course? And why is it a silver lining that Disney still gets to control subsequent versions of the character for the extended absurd lengths of time? What is with all the hand-wringing here?
This isn’t the only terrible framing at work here. Other outlets are including input from folks reminding people that Disney still has a trademark on Mickey Mouse and how that will allow the company to still bully and control others’ use of the character.
Meanwhile, Daniel Mayeda from the UCLA School of Law told The Guardian: “You can use the Mickey Mouse character as it was originally created to create your own Mickey Mouse stories or stories with this character. But if you do so in a way that people will think of Disney—which is kind of likely because they have been investing in this character for so long—then in theory, Disney could say you violated my trademark.”
No! That isn’t how this works. Trademark law was not intended as an end-around an expiring copyright term. No amount of investment in Mickey Mouse allows Disney to control the fact that the Steamboat Willie version of Mickey Mouse will be in the public domain. And suggesting otherwise is irresponsible. I have no doubt that Disney will try to do this, but it should fail on the merits.
And the larger point is that all of this worry and dismay over one version of Mickey finally(!) entering into the public domain is absurd. Why is the framing in these posts all about Disney “losing” something rather than the public, literally all of us, gaining something. That’s the entire damned point of the public domain and it seems there are a lot of media outlets out there that can’t grasp the concept.
Facebook muted 41 seconds of a video he uploaded to Facebook because Universal Music Group (UMG) claimed to own the copyright for some of the audio that was played. Since the music in question came from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, and Bach died in 1750, there’s obviously no copyright claim on the music itself, which is definitely in the public domain. Instead, it seems, the claim was for the performance of this public domain music, which UMG says was played by Keith Jarrett, a jazz and classical pianist, and noted interpreter of Bach. Except that it wasn’t, as Pössel explains:
Either I am flattered that a Bach piece that I recorded with my own ten fingers on my digital keyboard sounds just like when Keith Jarrett is playing it. Or be annoyed by the fact that @UMG is *again* falsely claiming music on Facebook that they definitely do not own the copyright to.
This underlines the fact that upload filters may recognize the music – that’s not hard – but they are terrible at recognizing the performer of that music. It gets worse:
OK, I’ll go with “very annoyed” because if I then continue, Facebook @Meta DOES NOT EVEN GIVE ME THE OPTION TO COMPLAIN. They have grayed out the option to dispute the claim. They are dead wrong, but so sure of themselves that they do not even offer the option of disputing the claim, even though their system, in principle, provides such an option. And that, in a nutshell, is what’s wrong with companies like these today. Algorithms that make mistakes, biased towards big companies like @UMG.
This absurd situation is a foretaste of what is almost certainly going to happen all the time once major platforms are forced to use upload filters in the EU to comply with Article 17 of the Copyright Directive. Not only will they block legal material, but there will probably be a presumption that the algorithms must be right, so why bother complaining, when legislation tips the balance in favor of Big Content from the outset?
Two months ago, we posted what seemed like a last call on selling out the remaining stock of our version of the CIA’s card training game (that we originally Kickstarted a few years ago). A few people complained that they didn’t want to buy via Amazon. The copies that were available there sold out in about a day (any copies still on Amazon are resellers), but we took our final batch, and rather than sending them to Amazon, decided to put them on Miniature Market, one of the best online stores for all things board game related, in order to give those who didn’t want to use Amazon an alternative.
This truly is our final batch of these games. The only ones we have left are our personal copies. So, if you want the boxed CIA game, go check it out on Miniature Market!
If you’ve been around Techdirt for a while, you’ll probably recall that almost exactly four years ago, we launched our Kickstarter for CIA: Collect It All. This was our version of an internal CIA training card game, called “Collection Deck” that was partially released in response to a FOIA request. The release included heavily redacted cards. We redesigned the cards to make them much nicer, and then came up with our own scenarios and CIA methods to fill in the blanks where the redactions had been.
The Kickstarter was quite successful, with over 4,000 people supporting the project. Over the years since then, we’ve continued to sell the game in various places. We’re now down to just a few copies left of our original printing, and we don’t currently have plans to print any more. The remaining copies are for sale on Amazon at a steep discount as we try to clear out our last remaining copies. This may be your last chance to get a boxed copy of the game, so please check it out! Already got one? Get a backup copy! Or buy one for a friend. The underlying game is public domain and the other elements are released under a Creative Commons license, so you can still download the files to print and play if you’d like. However, having a professionally produced boxed version of the game is quite a different experience.
There are a lot of ways to make a “good adaptation”, and it doesn’t just mean telling the exact same story. When you’re making a game based on a novel — in this case, a game based on Hope Mirrlees’s 1926 fantasy novel Lud-in-the-Mist — the real accomplishment is to go beyond window-dressing and bring the spirit of the source material into the gameplay itself. That’s what The Wall Across The River accomplishes with its combination of competitive storytelling and a simple, attractive game board:
Lud-in-the-Mist is about the push-and-pull between the rational, down-to-earth inhabitants of the city of Lud and the fantastical land of Faerie that sits right next door. The game puts two main players at the heads of these two sides, with additional players taking on a judge/audience role. As play proceeds, the Mayor of Lud will try to build a wall between the city’s lands and the encroaching mist of unreason (by playing “bricks” onto the border between the two), while the Duke of Faerie tries to overwhelm the city and turn it into an extension of his kingdom (by expanding his fantastical influence over Lud, piece by piece).
But in order to do this, players will have to win a war of stories: in each round, they play cards against each other, representing the imaginative Fancies and intoxicating Fruits of Faerie, or the rational Rules and rock-solid Bricks of Lud. To use a card, a player must describe a scene; to use another card in response, the opposing player must offer a counter-scene that challenges the first. It’s then up to the remaining players, the “Citizens”, to judge the winner as they see fit. The game also supplies an excellent page of optional story prompts — not so long and dense as to be overwhelming, but robust enough to provide lots of inspiration.
The tension between the “normal world” and the fairy-folk is a rich old tradition in fantasy and folklore, and Lud-in-the-Mist is a seminal novel within it. At this tradition’s heart are powerful themes about the potency of storytelling, the conflict and balance between the rational and the fanciful, and the pervasive sense that only a thin and porous wall separates reality from a world of wonder that is both beautiful and terrifying. By immersing players in these themes, making them act out this contest and pursue the goals of both sides, The Wall Across The River shows how games can capture the essence of an existing story and explore it in new ways — and for that, it’s a well-deserving winner of Best Adaptation.
Congratulations to Seth Ellis for the win! You can get everything you need to play The Wall Across The River from its page on Itch, plus don’t forget to check out the other winners as well as the many great entries that didn’t quite make the cut! We’ll be back next week with another winner spotlight.
Well, it took us a little longer than usual, but we’re finally ready to announce the winners of our fourth annual public domain game jam, Gaming Like It’s 1926! We asked designers to create games based on works published in 1926 (plus some earlier sound recordings, due to the complexities of copyright law) that entered the public domain in the US this year. There seemed to be a lot of excitement around the public domain in 2022, and that resulted in us getting more submissions than in any jam since the first. There were so many great games, and you should check them all out — but first, here are the winners in our six prize categories for Gaming Like It’s 1926:
Inspired by Henri Matisse’s 1926 painting of the same name, Nude On A Yellow Sofa by Nora Katz is a game about exploring the relationship between artist and muse. We’ve seen games in past years that involved getting the players to create art, but this one takes it to a new level: over a series of eight rounds, each representing a period of a creative career, players will tell the story of an evolving artistic collaboration while each creating eight works of art using a medium of their choice. In the ninth and final round, they assemble a retrospective gallery exhibit of the works a century later. Throughout the game, they are made to confront the joy, vulnerability, and turbulence of an artistic relationship with the help of story prompts and themed rounds. It’s a phenomenally creative piece of game design that uses a single 1926 painting as the core inspiration for exploring a timeless concept, and we’re thrilled to name it the Best Analog Game.
There are many ways to build something new based on an existing work, but sometimes the most direct can be one of the most effective: telling the story of your own engagement with it. That’s what Anna Wu does in A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle DECODED, a short narrative game (mostly text-based, with other media judiciously used in various places) about Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid’s 1926 poem. As the game explains at the outset, the poem’s title caught Wu’s eye when scanning lists of 1926 works, and what follows is a personal story about the journey of, well, decoding this epic work written in the Scots language. The game uses its light interactive elements to bring the concept of translating an unfamiliar language into the gameplay itself, and succeeds in immersing the player in the designer’s own experience, as if you were with them on the journey. It is a simple story, extremely well told, and a showcase of how games can bring new perspectives to old works by interacting with them directly and literally. For that, it wins Best Digital Game.
Good roleplaying and storytelling games use their mechanics to provide players with lots of interesting prompts and inspirations; great ones find a way to marry those mechanics with the core themes and aesthetics of the story being told, evoking the desired feeling through the most fundamental aspects of play. The Wall Across The River by Seth Ellis is one such game, adapting Hope Mirrlees’s 1926 fantasy novel Lud-in-the-Mist into a roleplaying board game that forefronts the novel’s central tension: a divide between the rational and the fantastical, between the ordered world and the fairy-land of glamor and magic that clouds the mind. This tension becomes the central mechanic, as two players take up the two sides of this dance (with additional players taking on a judge-like role) and compete: will the rational Mayor successfully wall off the foggy land of the fairy-folk, or will the ethereal Duke conquer the town with ever-spreading mist? As the players lay down cards on the board in pursuit of these goals, they tell twisting stories full of magic and mystery that feel firmly situated in the setting, plot, and tone of the novel, making this a worthy winner of Best Adaptation.
If you’re a fan of the game jam, you probably recognize the name David Harris by now: he won the Best Analog Game category in both the 1925 and 1924 jams with his games Fish Magic and The 24th Kandinsky. This year, he’s back with another entry that continues his tradition of creating exceptionally original games that explore the work of a specific visual artist — or in this case, two artists. Dreaming the Cave is a game about the artistic partnership of Czech artists Toyen (born Marie Čermínová) and Jindřich Štyrský, and it plays out using the latter’s 1926 painting Jeskyně (The Cave) as its game board, and a set of cards depicting paintings by both artists as its game pieces. Through the process of mixing and matching these cards on the board, players are prompted to narrate a surreal dream scene that continues the partnership of these artists beyond Styrský’s death in 1942. Like Harris’s past games, it’s quite difficult to describe, because it is creative and unusual and custom-tailored to suit the specific artwork it explores, with the goal of helping players gain a deeper understanding of it. By using not just one work from one artist but several different ones from across the career of two artists, in a way that explores their original connection while encouraging players to imagine new ones, it takes the award for Best Remix.
When new works enter the public domain, it’s easy to focus on the novels, the paintings, the movies, the songs… but as we all know, copyright covers a whole lot more than that! Not for the first time, this year’s deep cut winner draws its inspiration from somewhere else entirely: a scientific paper. The Obstruction Method by Jason Morningstar of Bully Pulpit Games is a live-action roleplaying game based on Frances Holden’s behaviorist study involving 803 albino rats and an electrified maze. Players take on the roles of Holden and the people around her, and quickly find that their effort to test the rats has become its own experiment in which they themselves are the subjects. The game and its materials are beautifully presented to evoke the aesthetic of a 1920s scientific study, and the story itself spirals out far beyond its source material, as the real people involved had fascinating connections to the contemporary worlds of poetry and more. By taking source material that might seem too dry at first glance, and exposing its fascinating depth while also crafting an extremely clever premise for roleplaying, the game is an easy choice for Best Deep Cut.
It’s an exciting time in the public domain for fans of animation, with new works from the first golden age of American cartoons exiting copyright protection every year. Mr. Top Hat Doesn’t Give A Damn! by Josh of Dirtbug Games is a playful ode to the aesthetics of the era, pulling clips from several 1926 cartoons to create a short, comedic quasi-platformer that tells a story about the titular Mr. Top Hat. The game is unfinished, ending on a note from the designer that there is more to come, but it already crams in plenty of entertainment in its first two stages, which introduce the player to Mr. Top Hat and have them guide him through a few early dilemmas. It’s just plain fun to look at, and the AI-generated narrator commenting on the action throughout elevates it to a new level. Describing any of the jokes, which make clever use of both the narration and the visuals, would spoil them, and it’s better if you go into the short experience without knowing much in advance. By mining this exciting vein of animated visual assets, and enhancing them with some hand-made effects and new assets, then tying it all together in a story that perfectly suits the look, Mr. Top Hat wins the award for Best Visuals.
The winning designers will be contacted via their Itch pages to arrange their prizes, so if you see your game listed here, keep an eye on your incoming comments!
As in past years, we’ll be taking a closer look at each of these winners with spotlight posts in the weeks to come. Also like past years, we’ve got a podcast episode discussing the winners and some of our favorite entries that didn’t quite make the cut! You can listen to the episode now on our feed or via Soundcloud:
A huge thanks to all the designers who submitted games to this year’s jam. There are so many games worth playing, and I strongly urge everyone to check out all the entries. We’ll be back next year with Gaming Like Its 1927, and it’s never too early to start looking at the works that will be entering the public domain, and brainstorming your game ideas! We hope to get even more entries next year, and continue demonstrating why a rich and growing public domain benefits us all and leads to the creation of new, exciting works.
Auguste Rodin is without doubt one of the greatest sculptors in history. Equally without doubt, his works are now in the public domain, since he died in 1917. Unfortunately, the situation in France is a little more complicated, for reasons the artist and public domain campaigner Cosmo Wenman explains:
Shortly before his death, Rodin willed his estate to the French government, which created the Musée Rodin and assigned to it droit moral (“moral rights”) in Rodin’s oeuvre. By these rights the museum is permitted under French law to manufacture and sell a limited quantity of modern, posthumous bronze casts and represent them as “original” Rodin works. Musée Rodin earns considerable income from sales of such posthumous casts, as well as unlimited, simple reproductions.
Musée Rodin’s moral rights apply only within French jurisdictions, and only in very limited circumstances. They do not impinge on the public domain status of Rodin’s works, nor on the public’s right to freely copy them, even within France.
Wenman believes that museums, art galleries and private collectors around the world should make 3D scans of important public domain works and release them freely, thereby becoming “engines of new cultural creation”. The Musée Rodin disagrees, presumably because it is concerned that its monopoly on “original” posthumous casts might be devalued. As a result, it has been fighting for some years Wenman’s efforts to obtain the museum’s 3D scans of Rodin’s works through the courts.
Wenman has tweeted an update on his lawsuit. One piece of good news is that thanks to his legal campaign, the scans carried out for the Musée Rodin’s of two famous works – “The Kiss” and “Sleep” – are now freely available. Even better news is that Wenman has discovered the Musée Rodin has scanned its entire collection at high resolution. As he says: “These documents are of world wide interest and immeasurable artistic, academic, cultural, and commercial value. I am going after all of them, for everyone.”
It’s regrettable that some museums and galleries are still resisting these attempts to liberate public domain works. When those who are supposedly the guardians of society’s cultural patrimony are fighting to stop people from having full and free access to it, it’s clear that copyright’s poison, based on ownership and exclusion, has entered deep into their souls.
Over a decade ago, we wrote about how Google had to edit out the Australian Aboriginal flag from a logo because of copyright concerns. An 11-year-old girl had won a contest to design a Google logo for Australia Day, and her logo included a simple drawing of the popular Aboriginal flag. Harold Thomas created a (fairly simple) flag design “as a symbol of unity and national identity” for the Aboriginal people in Australia. The flag became quite popular… and then Thomas basically became a copyright landlord, demanding payment for pretty much any usage.
Apparently it took over two years, but the “deal” has been worked out — and it involves the Australian government paying over $20 million to basically buy out the copyright and the former licensing deals, but that still doesn’t mean the flag is truly in the public domain:
Mr Thomas will retain moral rights over the flag, but has agreed to give up copyright in return for all future royalties the Commonwealth receives from commercial flag sales to be put towards the ongoing work of NAIDOC.
A commercial company will keep its exclusive licence to be able to manufacture Aboriginal flags for commercial use, but the government said the company would not stop people from making their own flags for personal use.
So, given that he retains the moral rights, that suggests he will still have the power to stop anyone from using the flag in a way that he, personally, disapproves of. And the fact that there’s still a license for commercial use, means that the government is still effectively enforcing the copyright.
So, in the end this was $20 million of taxpayer money… to basically pledge not to go after people for personal use.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the flag would be managed in a similar manner to the Australian national flag, where its use is free, but must be presented in a “respectful and dignified way”.
“All Australians can now put the Aboriginal Flag on apparel such as sports jerseys and shirts, it can be painted on sports grounds, included on websites, in paintings and other artworks, used digitally and in any other medium without having to ask for permission or pay a fee,” Mr Morrison said.
“We?ve freed the Aboriginal Flag for Australians.”
With a whole bunch of caveats. If it’s used in a manner that someone disapproves of, you better believe that it won’t be seen as “free” for use. Hell, even the Google example from a decade ago probably wouldn’t work, because I would bet the Australian government would argue that was a “commercial” use.
Mr Thomas said the flag’s design was his dreaming story.
“The Flag represents the timeless history of our land and our people?s time on it. It is an introspection and appreciation of who we are,” he said.
“It draws from the history of our ancestors, our land, and our identity and will honour these well into the future.”
Seems just slightly ironic for a landlord who claimed ownership of a concept and then locked people out would call that a representative sample of “the timeless history of our land.”
Last night at midnight, we reached the end of Gaming Like It’s 1926, our fourth annual public domain game jam celebrating the new works that entered the public domain this year. At final count, we got 31 entries representing a huge variety of different kinds of digital and analog games!
For the next couple of weeks, we’ll be digging into all the games and selecting the winners in our six categories — but there’s no need to wait before playing! You can check out all the entries on itch.io:
At first glance (and having poked around in a couple of the early entries) I can already tell it’s going to be tough to narrow these down to just six winners — there are lots of games here that do fun and interesting things with public domain works. As in past years, once we’ve selected and announced the winners we’ll discuss each one in detail in a podcast and a series of posts.
Until then, a huge thanks to everyone who participated this year, and also to everyone who takes some time to play the games and give these designers the attention they deserve!