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MagazineRe: MediaPublic Domain: How to Win the Free IP Game

Public Domain: How to Win the Free IP Game

Cross Pitch: The Public Domain meets Low-Budget Genre Films

The “public domain consists of all the creative work to which no exclusive intellectual property rights apply” — you know, just like that preceding phrase, lifted straight from Wikipedia. Because I can — because it’s public domain.

It’s yours, mine, and ours — and soon — so will be the sweet spot of literary Modernism that’s now approaching its copyright expiration. This bounty of heretofore-protected “existing intellectual property” — rife with 20th-century cultural icons — will likely lead to an explosion of indie film adaptations. In fact, it’s already happening.

Earlier this week, it was announced at the Cannes film market that German distributor Dolphin Medien and U.K. horror house Red Shadow have partnered on a pair of films featuring Winnie the Pooh and Peter Pan. Both characters have survived Disney-fication so surely they can also survive becoming Winnie the Pooh: Death House and Peter Pan Goes to Hell, respectively… Or can they? Last year, upon the expiration of the Pooh copyright another film, Winnie the Pooh: Blood & Honey, made headlines for its brazen and inspired take on the beloved character. 

And how could it not? The karmic twist to all this is that Disney (which has its own tangled history with the Pooh rights) has waged a war against copyright expiry ever since its famous mouse started getting up in years. Disney’s lobbying led to 1998’s Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, a.k.a. The Mickey Mouse Protection Act, and its addition of another 20 years to an already lengthy 75-year copyright for works created before 1978. 

As it happens, the first incarnation of Mickey Mouse, “Steamboat Willie,” enters the public domain next year. We can only assume that A) someone, somewhere is making a Steamboat Willie version of Apocalypse Now in which a blood-spattered Donald Duck croaks “the horror;” and B) that Disney’s lawyers will pounce at the faintest whiff of copyright infringement (just as soon as they’re done dispatching Florida’s governor).

There was a moment when making our new film Wolf Story (now in post — thanks, Mr. L.) when I considered leaning further into Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf, which the film references and whose copyright expired this year. The Big Idea? Steppenwolf 2 — you know, like Teenwolf 2 — but not for kids.

(Arcane references with a Gen X twist — that’s pretty much my whole schtick.)

Anyway, instead of robbing the grave of a dead German (and by “grave,” I mean oeuvre and by “robbing” I mean fair use), I decided instead to find some existing IP to bolster a newsroom dramedy I’ve been “writing” for a couple of decades. This is how I discovered a long-forgotten comic book superhero — one that just might change everything we thought we knew about journalism and heroism! They call him

The Press Guardian. As Comics blogger Christopher Stigliano explains:

Perry Chase [is the] son of the publisher of the Daily Express newspaper, and “society reporter” (!!!) for the paper. His everyday persona is somewhat milquetoast, and at the beginning of one comic, he’s even described as sissified (!!!)… Usually, the newspaper is out to break some crime-related story, and Perry asks his father if he can cover it. He’s always told no, go back to your society reporting, and then he seems to agree and sulks away. …He puts on his Press Guardian uniform, and he beats up the bad guys and cleans up the crime situation. As with Clark Kent, who always seems to have “just missed” the big situation that Superman cleans up, Perry “just misses” the stories that his alter ego Press Guardian cleans up.

The titular hero of the Press Guardian first appeared in 1940 as a recurring six-page storyline in an 11-issue run of PEP Comics, an imprint of the forerunner of what became Archie Comics. Press Guardian was created by writer Abner Sundell and artist Mort Meskin, a duo not as dynamic as, say, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of another reporter-superhero who debuted a couple of years prior.

Of course, the attraction of existing IP to creators, publishers, and studios is the leveraging of the audience’s presumed “pre-awareness” (so the marketing spend can be focused on just plain old awareness). Press Guardian was buried so deep in the bowels of the Internet, it’s a wonder I found him at all (and that was by accident). The only pre-awareness the character can claim is the result of this very column. No wonder his publisher didn’t renew his copyright. They couldn’t find him. 

But I did. Was it an accident…? Or was it…providence?

What say you, brave reader?

Daedalus Howell
Daedalus Howellhttps://dhowell.com
Welcome to one man's search for meaning through media making. Whether you're an active "creative," or an artist-adjacent culture serf, perhaps you will find my (mis)adventures in the screentrade, publishing, journalism and other arts edifying and inspiring — or at least mordantly humorous. More about me here.

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