Copyright Issues – Oz, The Great & Powerful

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You can learn a great deal about copyright law by analyzing the different copyright issues in the creation of the recent Disney movie, Oz the Great and Powerful.  The new Oz movie is a derivative work based on L. Frank Baum’s children’s book, The Wizard of Oz.  Elements created in the book were available for Disney to use, but anything created for the 1939 movie was not.

The book was written in 1900, so its copyright protection expired in 1956.  Baum had written thirteen sequels continuing the Oz story and they all entered the public domain between 1960 and 1986.  Meanwhile, Samuel Goldwyn purchased the film rights from Baum in 1933 then sold them to MGM in 1938.  MGM still retains the copyright to the movie it produced until 2034.  Disney received the film rights to the other thirteen books in 1954, but MGM did not sell their right to the first book.  In fact, MGM and Disney had a few legal battles over the movie content.

In 2011, the 8th Circuit of Appeals ruled that while the characters in Baum’s novels are in the public domain, their depictions in the 1939 movie are still protected.  As a result Disney, and anyone else looking to utilize the Oz characters, can draw directly from the novels in the public domain but cannot use another similar to the 1939 movie which was original.  This is easier to understand with some examples.

Munchkins were introduced in the book but the depiction of Munchkinland in the movie cannot be copied.  To avoid any trouble Disney did not show Munchkinland and did not even use the same style haircuts on their Munchkin characters.  Current films cannot copy any of the dialogue in the Wizard of Oz unless the lines were taken from the book.  Dorothy’s iconic ruby slippers are also copyright protected because in the book her shoes were silver.

Copyright issues can become very complex and the Oz scenario highlights its complexities.  If you are experiencing copyright issues or have concerns about infringement you can contact Stone Law at 732-444-6303 or leave us a message on our website.