Mickey Mouse by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks, ©1928
Mickey Mouse has arguably been the driving force behind the ongoing extension of copyright over the past 40 years. He was created in 1928, and it was the impending expiration of the Mickey Mouse copyright (among others) that prompted Disney (and others) to start pushing Congress for longer terms. They got it for Mickey’s 50th birthday.
Ironically, they never really needed it. Mickey as a character is practically a non-entity. He has no personality, and no memorable stories about him (the closest being his appearance in Fantasia, where’s essentially an actor playing the role of the Sorceror’s Apprentice). Although Disney is making some moves lately to (re)establish him as a character, pretty much the only purpose he serves for Disney is as a trademark for the company. And you don’t need copyright for that.
If Mickey had entered the Public Domain at the end of 1984 like he was supposed to, it would have allowed other people to use the character in their own cartoons, comics, etc. But they wouldn’t be able to use the name “Mickey Mouse” (a trademark of the Walt Disney Company) anywhere on the packaging or promotional materials for it, and they wouldn’t be able to use the distinctive likeness of the character (also a registered trademark) for that either. They’d effectively have to keep his presence in the story a secret, or risk the legal might of one of the most powerful media conglomerates ever.
So in the same sense, Mickey is really more a symbol of something larger: characters owned by corporations and other heirs of their creators, who represent potential property for the holders of their copyrights.
"No. 5, 1948" by Jackson Pollock ©1948
Love it or hate it, the work of Jackson Pollock revolutionized the world of art. He didn’t invent total abstraction, but he pushed it further than before. He developed the idea of splattering liquid paint on a canvas on the floor, rather than using tools to apply it carefully on an easel. And he may have introduced “my child could have done that” to the vocabulary of the art critic.
Pollock’s piece “No. 5, 1948" is a standard example of his drip-painting technique. Its notability comes from its monetary value. It was reportedly sold by recording mogul David Geffen for $140million, which would make it one of the most valuable individual paintings in existence. (However the supposed buyer denies having purchased it.)
Under the copyright laws in effect when it was created, “No. 5, 1948" would have entered the Public Domain at the end of 2004. Of course that only means it could be copied freely; the original piece of canvas and the snakes of paint on it would still be the sole property of whoever last purchased it.
The Crucible by Arthur Miller ©1953
The Crucible (1953) is the second-best-known play by Arthur Miller (after Death of a Salesman), and arguably his most important. Telling a tale from some 350 years earlier (now over four centuries ago), it dramatizes the infamous witch trials of Salem Massachusetts, which Miller used as an allegory to Senator Joe McCarthy’s then-ongoing paranoid crusade against Communists in the entertainment industry. The characters are technically historical figures, but for dramatic purposes (and since almost nothing was known about them) Miller invented their personalities, as well as the details of the plot.
Under PD56 it would have entered the Public Domain at the end of 2009. The film adaptations by Jean-Paul Sartre (1957) and by Miller himself (1996) are protected by their own copyrights.
The Love of the Last Tycoon by F. Scott Fitzgerald ©1941
The Love of the Last Tycoon: A Western is the last novel written by F. Scott Fitzgerald, left unfinished at the time of his death in 1940. His friend Edmund Wilson compiled the completed material, and published it the next year under the title The Last Tycoon (perhaps appropriate that an incomplete novel have an incomplete title). In the 1950s it was adapted for television starring Jack Palance, and in the 1970s it was adapted as a feature film starring Robert DeNiro, scripted by playwright Harold Pinter, and directed by Elia Kazan.
The titular tycoon is Monroe Stahr, whose story is based on the real-life career of Irving Thalberg, an influential “boy genius” film producer whose partnership with Louis B. Mayer helped establish MGM as a major studio, but eventually ended with him being pushed aside. In addition to its contemporary insight into the history and culture of the era, the novel is a work by one of the great writers of the early 20th century.
The edition published in 1941 should have entered the Public Domain at the end of 1997.
Download The Love of the Last Tycoon by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Walt Disney’s Peter Pan ©1953
The original story of Peter Pan, Wendy Darling, Captain Hook, and Tinker Bell is in the public domain in most of the world, having been published by creator J. M. Barrie in novel form in 1911.
Although the basic story is the same, Disney’s version gave us the distinctive Peter Pan costume, the Lost Boys’ animal suits, and the appearance of Tinker Bell as a blonde in a not-very-modest green dress. It included several songs, such as the melodic “Second Star to the Right” and the deplorably racist “What Makes the Red Man Red?”
Under PD56, Walt Disney’s animated musical adaptation – released in theatres in 1953 – would have entered the Public Domain at the end of 2009.
"The Shower" by Paul Cadmus ©1943
“The Shower” is one of many groundbreaking paintings and illustrations by Paul Cadmus. It depicts three figures at a beach: one nude male using a semi-open shower, a nude male seated facing away from the shower, and a woman wearing a wrap, standing a short distance away and looking generally toward the shower.
The social significance of Cadmus’ work is substantial. Although the visual style of his works typically called back to earlier realistic schools of painting (counter to the trends of the time), the subject matter and its treatment challenged social norms. His earlier “The Fleet’s In” (commissioned by the US government) depicted members of the US Navy in a drunken and bawdy scene. Works such as “The Shower” unapologetically eroticized the nude male figure while remaining chaste and inexplicit enough to deflect accusations of being pornography… while serving as the inspiration and template for much artistic gay porn of the following decades. His works also routinely commented silently on other social issues.
Cadmus died on December 12, 1999 at the age of 95. Under the copyright laws in effect when “The Shower” was created, it should have entered the Public Domain a few weeks later.
Download “The Shower” by Paul Cadmus
Rebel Without a Cause ©1955
Rebel Without A Cause is a landmark of American culture, identified by the Library of Congress as culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant.
It features James Dean in his next-to-last role, with Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo, and a supporting cast that includes Jim Backus and young Dennis Hopper. It adopted the title of a 1940s psychological study and dramatized the “generation gap” (before the term existed). The central theme of it – a suburban middle-class teenager rebelling against parental authority and society’s expectations of him – has influenced countless movies and entire genres of music (starting with rock-and-roll), and has profoundly affected that society itself.
Released in 1955 (shortly after Dean’s tragic death), it should have entered the Public Domain in January 2012.
Download Rebel Without a Cause
"Rocket 88" is arguably the first Rock and Roll song. It’s a celebration of the new Oldsmobile 88, one of the archetypal pleasure-craft automobiles of the era, and (almost as obviously) a celebration of sex. It was recorded in March 1951 by Ike Turner and his band, with vocals by saxophonist Jackie Brenston (under the name “the Delta Cats”), and went to the top of the Rhythm and Blues charts. A few months later, Bill Haley’s Saddlemen – a Country and Western band – recorded a version which was a big hit in the northeast US. It was that version, with its genetic mixing of Black R&B and White C&W, that gave birth to American R&R.
The song was based on a couple of previous tunes (a common practice in those pre-litigious days of cultural ferment and experimentation): the song “Cadillac Boogie” and an instrumental called “Rocket 88 Boogie”. But the version credited to Brenston, as a 1951 composition, would have entered the Public Domain at the end of 2007.