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Sci-Fi Movies Entertainment

Lawsuit Claims Buck Rogers Is In the Public Domain 207

An anonymous reader writes: As reported in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, a court will decide whether Buck Rogers is in the public domain. The Buck Rogers comic strip first appeared in 1929. Team Angry Filmmakers claim that Buck Rogers entered the public domain in the mid-1950s, and they want to make a Buck Rogers movie called Armageddon 2419 A.D. They filed a federal suit this year in Los Angeles against the trust claiming ownership of the name, and the trial has been moved to Pittsburgh.
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Lawsuit Claims Buck Rogers Is In the Public Domain

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  • by dbIII ( 701233 ) on Tuesday October 27, 2015 @09:48AM (#50809345)
    Doesn't the current mouse protection rule set the clock to death of creator plus 70 years for copyright?
    Shouldn't that be not only enough for anyone but utterly overboard?
    • by Nidi62 ( 1525137 ) on Tuesday October 27, 2015 @09:50AM (#50809359)
      Hey, the descendants of the descendants of a creator worked hard to be born into a family that had someone come up with a good idea once 2 or 3 generations ago and they deserve to get paid for it!
      • Hey, the descendants of the descendants of a creator worked hard to be born into a family that had someone come up with a good idea once 2 or 3 generations ago and they deserve to get paid for it!

        You'd prefer Warner Brothers make out like bandits instead of the family of JK Rowling?

        • If Harry Potter were in the public domain, anyone who wanted to, could make movie adaptations of it, not just Warner Bros.

          I'd certainly prefer that the public at large make out like bandits -- enjoying many adaptations and the chance to make their own, as well as greater access to the original novels (e.g. for free via Project Gutenberg) -- rather than the family of JK Rowling.

      • Protecting the right of the son or grand-son to sell it to some corporation to pay for their coke habit, who in turn owns the works forever, never dies, and actively lobbies for copyright extension using profits until the eventual heat death of the universe.

    • The argument is probably that this entered public domain before those extensions became law.
      • by dbIII ( 701233 ) on Tuesday October 27, 2015 @09:57AM (#50809417)
        Even without that argument the writer has been deceased for 75 years so the extensions should not apply either.
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philip_Francis_Nowlan
        • The expiry of 70 years after the end of the calendar year in which the last surviving author died applies in Europe. It also applies in the United States to works of individual authorship first published in 1978 or later. But Buck Rogers was first published before 1978, and U.S. copyright in pre-1978 works follows the rule for works made for hire, expiring 95 years after the end of the calendar year in which the work was first published.

          Here's a summary of the U.S. copyright term:

          • Works made for hire by the United States Government: Public domain
          • Sound recordings first published before 1972: State copyright applies until 2067
          • Mask works (semiconductor layouts): 10 years
          • Works published before 1923: Public domain
          • Works published before 1964 whose copyright was not renewed in the 28th year: Public domain. As I understand the featured article, plaintiff claims that Buck Rogers falls in this category.
          • Individual works published in 1978-2003 whose last surviving author died before 1978: 2047
          • Other individual works first published since 1978: 70 years after death of last surviving author
          • All other works, including works made for hire and works published before 1978: 95 years after first publication
          • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

            by Anonymous Coward

            Doesn't this give all creators a perverse incentive to have an infant contribute to the work, just to ensure maximum copyright duration? I mean, if the main author is in her 30s at the time of creation, and life-expectancy is mid-late-70s, she's losing some 30 years of copyright duration, whereas if she simply has an infant fart on the cover, she gets it back.

            Hell, keep that "anchor-baby" on life-support as long as possible in old age, just to keep the dream of everlasting copyright alive!

            • A child would be a safer bet than an infant. Probably one taller than the rear window of an SUV, since kids get run over by parents.

          • by dbIII ( 701233 )
            That is so screwed up and far worse than I imagined. Let's hope that such copyright idiocy remains only in the USA since the death plus 70 is stupid enough without adding the rest onto the pile.
    • by ad454 ( 325846 ) on Tuesday October 27, 2015 @10:01AM (#50809453)

      Doesn't the current mouse protection rule set the clock to death of creator plus 70 years for copyright?
      Shouldn't that be not only enough for anyone but utterly overboard?

      This is my understanding as well. And "Philip Francis Nowlan" who is the creator of Buck Rogers died in 1940, which was more than 75 years ago.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]

      So with the current rules, Buck Rogers should be fully in the USA public domain.

      Unfortunately, we will have to wait until 2036 for Mickey Mouse to enter public domain, and by then I suspect that Disney will bribe enough government officials to prevent it.

      • Disney is not going to get another extension through Congress. Way too many eyes are on it now for them to pull off another Sonny Bono Act. It will have to be through a treaty or some other mutli-government agreement.
        • It will have to be through a treaty or some other mutli-government agreement.

          Under current law, both Mickey and Pooh enter the public domain in the United States in 2024 because their copyrights are anchored in works first published in 1928: Milne's The House at Pooh Corner and the original Disney/Iwerks Mickey trilogy (Plane Crazy, The Gallopin' Gaucho, and Steamboat Willie). If NAFTA II gets proposed before 2024, watch Disney and Gershwin lobby the USTR to include Mexico's life plus 100 year copyright term in the agreement.

        • by wshs ( 602011 )
          Or they can get it in through an NDAA renewal or a Protecting Children From Abuse Act
      • Mickey Mouse is trademarked, and those trademark protections last into perpetuity... or until Disney stops defending the trademark (ie, into perpetuity). Steamboat Willy, a Mickey Mouse cartoon, is already public domain in some international jurisdictions, but the trademark is still valid. What that means in those jurisdictions, and in the US, if Disney does eventually allow the copyright to expire, is that although Mickey Mouse is trademarked, the work can be freely copied and distributed in and among those jurisdictions, as well as even have derivative works made from it, so long as any derivative works do not use the trademarked Mickey Mouse character. Actual copies of the cartoon are not considered misappropriation of the Mickey Mouse trademark because Mickey Mouse was obviously used with permission in that work.
        • by Sowelu ( 713889 )

          That's surprisingly informative and sensible. Thank you!

        • But couldn't there be legal derivative works using the Mickey Mouse image/style from that time?

          Does the trademark really cover all of the various permutations of the Mickey Mouse image?

          Other cartoon characters, e.g. Bugs Bunny, changed significantly over time too.

          • by mark-t ( 151149 )
            I believe that trademark does allow creation of something that imitates the style of the trademark for purpose of satire or parody, but I think it may still necessary for it to somehow be distinctive. I'm more familiar with copyright law than trademark, to be honest... but IANAL, so standard disclaimers apply. Ultimately, everything I've said is true to only the best of my understanding and knowledge.
    • by alvinrod ( 889928 ) on Tuesday October 27, 2015 @10:11AM (#50809523)
      The issues are a little muddier to me when it comes to using a character. I'd have no issue at all with someone taking an old Buck Rogers story and adapting it for film at this point, but using someone else's character to create new works is a little different, even more so if the owner of that character is still actively using them in the creation of new works.

      Perhaps the best way to illustrate it is to use Mickey Mouse. I think Steamboat Willie or the other early cartoons should be in the public domain and freely accessible, but I don't think that entitles anyone to make a Mickey Mouse cartoon as Disney is still actively using the character and creating new works with the character.

      Personally I think works should enter the public domain after ~25 years. However, let the copyright for a character exist for as long as works involving that character are being produced by the owner. The extreme example of why I feel that way is no one would probably like it if a character they were developing was stolen by someone else and used to spread a message the original author disagreed with, such as Mickey Mouse being used to promote white supremacist propaganda, an oil company using Captain Planet to tell kids that fracking is great, or some other example along those lines.

      It's not an ideal situation as it does run into an issue of perpetual copyright assuming some owner wants to pump out some amount of crap to maintain that it's still being used. Perhaps a set term with paid extensions to ensure that people only maintain those copyrights if they actually intend on using the character or generating some profit from it with the rate increasing for each extension.
      • by Lumpy ( 12016 )

        " such as Mickey Mouse being used to promote white supremacist propaganda,"

        You mean the original use of the mouse in the beginning? Go watch "steamboat willie".....

      • by Dredd13 ( 14750 ) <dredd@megacity.org> on Tuesday October 27, 2015 @10:21AM (#50809641) Homepage

        The issues are a little muddier to me when it comes to using a character.

        Not really. This becomes the textbook definition of "a derivative work". If they want to make a derivative work of a public domain story (which includes the characters within that story) then they should be free to do so.

        This is why the Disney thing becomes key, because any new work featuring Mickey Mouse is -- technically -- a derivative work of Steamboat Willlie, whether that work is created by Disney Corporation or (at some future point, after Steamboat Willie falls into the public domain) some new animation house.

        • This is why the Disney thing becomes key, because any new work featuring Mickey Mouse is -- technically -- a derivative work of Steamboat Willlie.

          What you get with the expiration of the copyright on Steamboat Willie is the right to produce derivatives of Steamboat Willie. Eight minutes of silent era sight gags with a synchronized sound track and a thin narrative thread, with a steamboat as your principal stage set and prop.

          What you don't get are to the rights to the trademarked character designs or the rights to produce derivatives based on the hundreds (?) of films, comic strips, children's story books, radio and television productions and video ga

          • by Dredd13 ( 14750 )

            The character *is* part of the copyrighted work, so anything you can do with that character (which hasn't itself been copyrighted and given some later-expiring protection) is fair game.

            So you could create your own "Mickey Mouse" comics/cartoons/etc. so long as such creations were not dependent on other, still existing copyrights. (In other words, you could create your own wholly-original Mickey Mouse cartoon, but it couldn't be based on, say, Fantasia... it couldn't also contain Minnie Mouse, etc.)

            • Don't you just love those sneaky, sleazy, monopolist bastards? Big Pharma is also good at this, effectively extending their expired patents.
            • by vux984 ( 928602 )

              Under copyright. Yes. You can do that.

              But the mouse is still a registered trademark. And you will lose. They'll go after you for trademark infringement.

              That's why the disney copyright stuff really doesn't make a lot of sense. They won't lose mickey mouse when steamboat willie goes into the public domain, but the mouse itself is trademarked. My sense of it is that its a belt and suspenders defense... they don't want to take any chances. But really, the trademark will hold as long as they maintain it.*

              When st

              • by Dredd13 ( 14750 )

                Ultimately, I think Disney is 'right' in their defense because I don't think trademarked characters, without the original copyright to back them up, will actually survive.

                It's not something that's been really tested (although actually this case might, because if Buck Rogers is ruled to be in the public domain, there are Buck Rogers related character trademarks in play, theoretically), but my gut tells me that courts will throw those out.

                • by vux984 ( 928602 )

                  I think disney will hang onto Mickey Mouse. He is more than just a random character in some of their films. He *is* their identity and their mascot. He identifies to disney as much as the michelin man or the pillsbury doughboy belong to their respective companies. (Indeed the Michelin man dates back to the 1890s himself.)

                  Mickey Mouse is used the way Trademarks should be used.

                  I could see them losing a lot of other stuff as the copyright falls. And the nonsense I mentioned with Harry Potter should likewise fa

                  • by Dredd13 ( 14750 )

                    In the Michelin Man though, the trademarked character is "original".

                    For Mickey Mouse, the trademarked character is a derivative work (of the copyrighted work, yes a work they own, but still, it was created first and foremost as a character, not as a branding mark).

                    I think that'll make a difference.

                    • by vux984 ( 928602 )

                      but still, it was created first and foremost as a character, not as a branding mark).

                      Why, at first blush I was going to agree, since you are arguing that trademark cannot be used to 'remove' something from the public domain.

                      But then I realized that's exactly what all trademarks are. The letters I, B, M couldn't be more public domain, ... the trademark's sole purpose is to remove them from the public domain and grant a entity limited exclusive rights to use them for certain designated purposes.

                      I think its pretty plausible that Disney will successfully argue that it still owns Mickey Mouse as

              • by msauve ( 701917 )
                "But the mouse is still a registered trademark. And you will lose. They'll go after you for trademark infringement."

                How does trademark infringement apply if not using the character to identify a competing good or service? Do you claim that no one can publish a picture of an apple with a bite missing, because it's a trademark of Apple?
                • by vux984 ( 928602 )

                  "How does trademark infringement apply if not using the character to identify a competing good or service?"

                  In precisely the same way EA using a "Porsche 911" or "Ferrari Enzo" in a Need 4 Speed racing game without licensing the use would be infringement.

                  Or are you arguing that because EA doesn't need to license the trademarks to be allowed use them? Because if so you'd be wrong.

                  Do you claim that no one can publish a picture of an apple with a bite missing, because it's a trademark of Apple?

                  A picture of an apple with a bite missing? Or the apple logo? Not all pictures of apples with a bite out are the Apple Logo. And to

              • When steamboat willies goes into PD, anyone can upload it to youtube. Anyone can make movies about a dancing mouse on a steamboat, and even use the same music that it's paired with it etc. But that mouse still can't *be* Mickey Mouse; nor so similar as to be confused with Mickey Mouse.

                Disney posted Steamboat Willie [youtube.com] to You Tube in 2009.

                If the geek were honest about the thing, what he has in Steamboat Willie is simply a tech demo of synchronized sound. The only other reason to watch it is to see Mickey, Minnie and Pete in their earliest, but still recognizable, form. Now fixed and trademarked.

                • by vux984 ( 928602 )

                  Disney posted Steamboat Willie to You Tube in 2009.

                  Yes. But *I* can't. That's the difference.

                  If the geek were honest about the thing, what he has in Steamboat Willie is simply a tech demo of synchronized sound. The only other reason to watch it is to see Mickey, Minnie and Pete in their earliest, but still recognizable, form. Now fixed and trademarked.

                  Steamboat willie itself yes, but in terms of what it represents... and what would flow into the PD afterwards, that's when it gets interesting.
                  Steamboat Willie ... 1928
                  Three Little Pigs ... 1933 (including "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf Theme song")
                  Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is 1937

        • Technically, as you like that word so much, all your examples are not derived works.
          I suggest to read copyright law, or the similar laws and scroll down to the definition of 'derived work'.
          The term 'derived work' is not something people writing articles about copyright made up: it is a defined term in the relevant laws.

          • by HiThere ( 15173 )

            Unfortunately, to understand it you also need to get a lawyer to explain a large number of related court cases. Even then you only get that lawyer's opinion, and a judge may well have a very different opinion.

            Still, you are right in that they all link back to that original definition.

      • by danbert8 ( 1024253 ) on Tuesday October 27, 2015 @10:28AM (#50809725)

        I think you are confusing copyright with trademarks. Disney might lose the copyright of the Mickey Mouse character, but they would still have a trademark restricting others from marketing said character. Water is free to market and distribute to anyone, but you can't put "Dasani" on the bottle unless you are Coke. You also can't put it in a Coke shaped bottle as that is trademarked too.

        Thus you'd be able to freely modify the stories and the character of Mickey Mouse as well as distribute without royalties, but you probably couldn't sell merchandise or run say a theme park with the trademarks.

        • Disney might lose the copyright of the Mickey Mouse character, but they would still have a trademark restricting others from marketing said character.

          A U.S. trademark cannot be used as an ersatz copyright. Dastar v. Fox.

        • It has been says in Dastar Corp. v. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp that you cannot use trademark to restrict the usage of the public domain. Of course this won't prevent "clever" people to try to game the system by using trademark and creating lawsuit (like for Zorro, Tarzan, etc.) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org].
        • I think you are confusing copyright with trademarks. Disney might lose the copyright of the Mickey Mouse character, but they would still have a trademark restricting others from marketing said character.

          Not quite, though you're close. As the other poster correctly said, trademarks cannot be used like copyrights.

          In fact, given cases such as the SHREDDED WHEAT case, it turns out that where a trademark would otherwise interfere with the free use of a public domain copyrighted work, the trademark will suffer from genericide and be lost.

          This is why Disney focuses so much on copyright extensions: If Steamboat Willie enters the public domain, the Mickey Mouse trademark will be lost in many areas. It'll still be v

      • Perhaps the best way to illustrate it is to use Mickey Mouse. I think Steamboat Willie or the other early cartoons should be in the public domain and freely accessible, but I don't think that entitles anyone to make a Mickey Mouse cartoon as Disney is still actively using the character and creating new works with the character.

        I guess that is the difference between copyright and trademark. The copyright can expire, which means the material can be copied, but the trademark does not expire which means no one

      • Sorry, but nobody creates characters in a vacuum. The creators always pull their ideas from society, at least the successful ones that other people can relate to.

        Also, you're suggesting is we have trademark law. There is no need to "copyright a character" in that case. Although I'm a bit skeptical of "are being produced by the owner" suggestion, as in the current system we allow commercial empires to consolidate ownership and hold it perpetually as it does not cost them anything to sit on a few million work

      • by N1AK ( 864906 )

        The issues are a little muddier to me when it comes to using a character.

        I'm really not sure why it is. If I'm the first person to create a life-saving drug, I don't get perpetual ownership of that drug and all refinements of that drug, nor should I. If I design a distinctive type of building, I don't get to stop people creating buildings of similar shape for time immemorial. Why on earth does the guy who draws a cartoon mouse get such astonishing protection of his intellectual property compared to people w

      • The problem is under this logic, Shakespeare would still be under copyright. Copyright is intended for a LIMITED time with its express purpose to advance the arts and sciences, NOT to enrich creators, thats a side effect.. I think the 14years +14 year extension laid out in the Constitution is more than fair, especially in an Information Age
        • It is only fair to people who actually never create anything.
          If you write a novel today, publish it on Amazone or iTunes, does not really matter how much success you have. When I "take it for free" and make a multi billion movie like LOTR, from it: you are pissed.

          If you have spent your whole life writing stuff, novels, plays, music barely surviving at minimum income, just because the market plays you, or you are bad at marketing, no one 'discovers' you, no one invests into you, no one cares about you, and t

      • Personally I think works should enter the public domain after ~25 years. However, let the copyright for a character exist for as long as works involving that character are being produced by the owner.

        There is no copyright for a character. A character is a part of the work it appears in, and thus making a new work with that character is, at most, a derivative work based on the previous material. (A lot depends on how fleshed out the character is -- the vaguer the character, the less likely that it will be protectable at all. For example the character of Sam Spade, the detective, from the novel 'The Maltese Falcon' was never protected by copyright because he consists of little more than a name.)

        Once the o

      • by Macdude ( 23507 )

        The issues are a little muddier to me when it comes to using a character

        The solution you're looking for is trademarks. Copyright protects the work, and trademarks can protect the characters. Trademarks don't expire as long as you renew and protect them.

    • by thoromyr ( 673646 ) on Tuesday October 27, 2015 @10:13AM (#50809543)

      there is no "mouse protection rule". There is an often cited "rule" that anything after steamboat willie is in eternal copyright protection, thanks to Disney. The reality is much more nuanced and the one thing that can be said about the various copyright reforms is that the system was very complex and simplifying it was a good thing. Simplifying it by return to the original rules for terms would have been nice, but the public wasn't the one paying for the reforms.

      One (of the many) complexities is that you used to have to file extensions. Since doing so cost money, many unprofitable properties were allowed to lapse into the public domain. Consequently, even when dealing with simple copyright (non-serialized written work appearing in novels whose printing dates are well documented) you can run into oddities like a novel by an author written in the fifties being in the public domain while another written in the twenties is still copyright protected.

      And it gets worse. The movie Heavy Metal was a compilation and as such required permission from a wide variety of copyright holders, both graphic and sound artists. This resulted in the inability to legally sell the movie for some time.

      As another example, serialized works can be problematic in tracking down their dates of publication. Documentation of assignment of copyright is often problematic. Different media has different rules. Until the DMCA "statements of fact" (such as the plans for a ship) could not be copyrighted so a work might be copyrighted (for the "arrangement of facts"), but the material contained therein be in the public domain (recipe books fall into this category). Where something was "set into tangible form" made a difference as well -- one of the reforms was aligning this so that (for example) an author's work that is copyrighted in the United States will also be copyrighted in Australia.

      This particular twist makes things difficult for Project Gutenberg where something written in 1935 might be legal to distribute in New Zealand, but not in the United States. Such balkanization was somewhat tolerable in the 20's and 30's when it required significant resources to achieve global distribution. Obviously these "loopholes" are more problematic today.

    • I would say it would be enough. Not necessarily overboard.
      An artist gets married and has a few kids in his early 20's writes an get killed. The life style due his invention would go to his wife and kids until he is in her 90's. Allowing his wife to support her family and herself for the rest of her life.

      • Too long. No one should expect to be paid for a lifetime for work that is already done. Thats a shitty deal for The People. Never forget copyright is a SOCIAL BARGAIN, there is a heavy price for that legal copyright protection, and that price is we own your work after a LIMITED time. A lifetime is not what i would call 'limited'
      • by jandrese ( 485 )
        Yeah, I mean if that woman had married a steel worker or a baker or pretty much any other professional on the planet she should expect to be set for life even if he dies at 20 with no insurance right?
      • by Cederic ( 9623 )

        His wife can't go out and earn a living? Even 20 years later when the kids are adults?

        Why the fuck should she get the easy life, to the detriment of society at large.

      • That's an excellent example of how absurd modern copyright law is.

    • by Kjella ( 173770 )

      Doesn't the current mouse protection rule set the clock to death of creator plus 70 years for copyright? Shouldn't that be not only enough for anyone but utterly overboard?

      Depends on what you think the purpose is. If you look at it from an economic perspective is it worse that your great-grandfather wrote Lord of the Rings than that he was a Rockefeller? If you look at it from a creative perspective, why do you have to reuse someone else's character, story or universe? Can't you come up with an original work and don't pretend it'd all be copyright infringement because nobody has the copyright on archetypes like the hero or villain. From a moral perspective, is it good that yo

  • Article summary (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Zontar_Thing_From_Ve ( 949321 ) on Tuesday October 27, 2015 @10:02AM (#50809461)
    1) Hollywood producers want to make new Buck Rogers movie based on his very first book appearance. Announce it at Comic Con.
    2) Trust that says it owns the character threatens to sue producers.
    3) Producers try to reach deal. Trust apparently refuses to reach a deal. They simply don't want the film made.
    4) Producers are now going to try an argument that Buck Rogers is actually already in the public domain, so screw the trust as they don't need their permission anyway.
    • "Estate of 'Buck Rogers 2017' movie producer claims copyright protection to stop holographic remake scheduled for 2092."
  • by gweeks ( 91403 ) on Tuesday October 27, 2015 @10:23AM (#50809661) Homepage

    The two original stories are in the public domain in the US. Here are Project Gutenberg links.

    Armageddonâ"2419 A.D.
    https://www.gutenberg.org/eboo... [gutenberg.org]

    and

    The Airlords of Han
    https://www.gutenberg.org/eboo... [gutenberg.org]

    Of course no where in the stories was the name Buck Rogers used. That name didn't start until the comic strip.

  • The novells, Armageddon 2419, first appeared in Amazing Stories in 1928 (I don't suppose anyone here has actually thought to google that title).

    However, as noted in wikipedia, that, and the sequel novells, The Airlords of Han, were collected into a book in the sixties, and I assure you that was copyrighted.

    I'll check back later this afternoon, and if someone wants to argue, I'll go look at my copy of that book that I bought back then, and check the copyright info, and post it here, tomorrow, though I doubt

    • That isn't how copyright works. The original story was published in 1928, and the copyright was never renewed. Therefore, it has expired and the work is now in the public domain. Reprinting it several decades later does not retroactively create a new copyright on the original work, or extend its copyright beyond when it expires. In fact, if you look in that collection from the 60s, you will almost certainly find a notice at the front that says, "Amargeddon 2419 Copyright 1928".

    • (Note - direct links to project Gutenberg bibliographic details)
      Armageddon - 2419 A.D. [gutenberg.org]
      The Airlords of Han [gutenberg.org]

      I have fairly high confidence that PG has at least one competent lawyer and knows what they're talking about when they say those works are in the public domain.

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