Last updated on April 16th, 2023
It’s time for my now-annual look at cartoons that should’ve entered public domain as of today (but won’t), according to the copyright laws the cartoons were created under.
To update a quote from last year’s post:
Since said copyright extensions retroactively apply to previous materials, it’s prevented the United States from getting to enjoy “Public Domain Day,” better known as New Year’s Day. Nothing new is projected to enter the public domain in the US until 2019, barring more Congressional extensions.
For more on Public Domain Day and some of the materials still withheld from public domain, see this article.
Under the copyright laws that existed from 1909 through 1978, works could be copyrighted for a single 28 year term, with one 28 year renewal allowed, or a total of 56 years. This was deemed sufficient for most of the 20th century. It also allowed for the creation of a large amount of the entertainment we still enjoy today.
If we still had the above copyright terms, we’d see media created in 1961 entering the public domain as of January 1, 2018. Instead, the copyright extensions in the 70s and 90s retroactively extended everything created between 1923 and 1977 that was still under copyright to a 95-year term. Thus, the earliest date for anything new entering public domain is in 2019.
At any rate, here’s a list of comic and animated material that would’ve entered the public domain on January 1, 2018. Note it’s a pretty long list—American comics were quite busy in 1961, with many now-classic characters and elements debuting this year.
Wikipedia has a list of major comics published in 1961.
- Justice League of America related characters:
- Amos Fortune
- Kanjar Ro
- Doctor Destiny
- Legion of Super-Heroes related characters:
- Bouncing Boy
- Sun Boy
- Star Boy
- Shrinking Violet
- Brainiac 5
- Phantom Girl
- Triplicate Girl (aka Luornu Durgo; Luornu didn’t become Duo Damsel until 1966’s “Adventure Comics” #341)
- The Legion of Super-Villains: Saturn Queen, Cosmic King, and Lightning Lord
- Superman Family-related characters and elements:
- Chief Parker (Smallville’s police chief)
- General Zod
- Jules Luthor (Lex Luthor’s father; he gained the name “Lionel” from the “Smallville” TV series)
- Lena Luthor (Lex Luthor’s sister)
- Lesla-Lar (a Supergirl foe)
- Fred and Edna Danvers (Supergirl’s foster parents)
- The Phantom Zone (and the Phantom Zone Projector)
- Pete Ross
- Miss Gzptlsnz (Mr. Mxyzptlk’s girlfriend/wife; spelling changed to “Gsptlsnz” in modern appearances)
- Green Lantern related characters:
- Jack Jordan (Hal’s brother)
- Jim Jordan (Hal’s brother)
- The Green Lantern Corps
- Hector Hammond
- Hawkman related characters:
- Kator Hol (the Silver Age Hawkman)
- Shayera Thal (the Silver Age Hawkgirl/Hawkwoman)
- Matter Master
- Shadow Thief
- Flash related characters and elements:
- The Top
- The Cosmic Treadmill
- “The Flash of Two Worlds” from “The Flash” #123 (usually considered the introduction of DC’s multiverse, though Earth-2 doesn’t gain its name until 1963’s “Justice League of America” #21)
- Bat-Girl (Betty Kane)
- Clayface (Matthew Hagen version)
- “The Haunted Tank” (Jeb Stuart and J.E.B. Stuart)
- Jean Loring
- Ray Palmer (the Silver Age Atom)
- Sue Dibny
- Wonder Tot (Wonder Woman’s preschool-aged self)
- The Fantastic Four, including:
- Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic)
- Sue Storm (the Invisible Girl; became the Invisible Woman in 1985’s “Fantastic Four” #284)
- Johnny Storm (the Human Torch)
- Ben Grimm (The Thing)
- Mole Man
- Linda Carter
- Dr. Droom (name changed in 1976 to “Dr. Druid” to avoid confusion with the more famous villain Dr. Doom)
Wikipedia has a list of major animated productions from 1961.
- Disney’s “One Hundred and One Dalmatians”
- “Top Cat”
- “The Alvin Show,” including:
- Clyde Crashcup
- Leonardo (Clyde’s silent assistant)
- “The Yogi Bear Show,” including:
- Cindy Bear
- While Snagglepuss first appeared a few years earlier, this show marks his finalized, modern appearance (with pink fur and a collar/cuffs)
2019: The year the public domain is active again?
Next year should be interesting. 2019 will finally see material created in 1923 enter the public domain in the United States. But again, that’s assuming another copyright extension doesn’t happen during 2018. I expect to see another extension passed by this time next year, if not within the next few years. The current Congress and president are very business-friendly, and hostile toward anything that doesn’t benefit wealthy interests (see: net neutrality, PBS, etc.).
Disney, who’s lobbied for the 70s and 90s copyright extensions to protect Mickey Mouse, will likely do so again very soon (if not already). Mickey’s currently set to enter public domain in 2024. And yes, other media conglomerates also have an interest in longer copyrights; Time Warner doesn’t want to see Superman, Batman, or Bugs Bunny enter public domain.
The 2018 mid-term elections could change Congress’ makeup, but that might not be a guarantee against such copyright extensions. The 1998 copyright extension was signed into law by a Democrat (Bill Clinton). That said, there’s much more awareness of copyright issues now than back in the 90s, and political activism’s been on the rise since Trump took office (for obvious reasons).
Yes, this is a long list of characters, but it shows why a robust public domain’s important. Especially a public domain with concepts and ideas from within living memory, not one limited to material from before the 1920s.
Of course, the companies that own the above characters still make heavy use of them. Zod, the Phantom Zone, and Lex Luthor’s father/sister have all appeared frequently recent Superman- or Supergirl-related media, for instance.
But of course, the average person won’t be able to make their own versions of the Phantom Zone, the Green Lantern Corps, or have various public domain characters meet the Thing. At least, not until 2057, when they all enter public domain, barring another copyright extension.