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Will Harry Potter ever enter the public domain?

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    How come this question is vtc'ed for too broad? It may be off-topic but definitely not too broad. – C.Koca Feb 4 '18 at 13:58
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    @C.Koca - It's probably better suited for Law:SE – Valorum Feb 4 '18 at 13:59
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    Since JKR still lives, nobody knows exactly. And England has a long copyright duration even after death, so you better shouldn't make any plans for it within your lifetime. It's probably better to acquire the rights you need some other way. – Fabian Röling Feb 4 '18 at 13:59
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    @Micah Unless otherwise stated, country of the first publication, i.e., UK, should be understood. – C.Koca Feb 4 '18 at 14:03
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    Voting to leave open - we've had many of this kind of question before, such as When will books by Edgar Rice Burroughs enter the public domain? and When will copyright restrictions expire on The Lord of the Rings?. – Mithrandir Feb 4 '18 at 16:31
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Objectively the answer to "will it enter public domain" is yes. According to The Duration of Copyright and Rights in Performances Regulations Act (1995), the Harry Potter books will enter the public domain 70 years after the death of the author, J.K. Rowling.

5.12.2 : Copyright expires at the end of the period of 70 years from the end of the calendar year in which the author dies...

Assuming she lives to be 81 years of age; the average life-expectancy for a British woman living in Scotland, we would expect to see the books leave copyright (in the UK) around 2118 A.D.


This number is different in different territories (and is the subject, at least in the US of a seemingly ever-extending term) but broadly they're all around the 50-70 year mark in the major markets.

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    Any desire to mention the Mickey Mouse extension, which regularly advances the period in the United States, which then gets reflected into the rest of the world through international law? :-/ – FuzzyBoots Feb 4 '18 at 14:00
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    @FuzzyBoots - I'm reasonably confident that these books will never enter the Public Domain. – Valorum Feb 4 '18 at 14:04
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    @FuzzyBoots, there may be some promising signs on that front though I wouldn't recommend holding your breath. – Harry Johnston Feb 4 '18 at 20:16
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    I also vaguely remember that there are provisions in the UK law that allow it to keep creations deemed especially worthy under copyright for indefinite time, so I would not bet on the 70 years mark :(. – Edheldil Feb 5 '18 at 9:01
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    @Edheldil There is a special provision which keeps "Peter Pan" in copyright. This is not because "Peter Pan" is especially worthy, but because the royalties go to the St Ormond Street for Sick Children. Of course, it wouldn't be particularly out of character for JKR to leave HP to a similarly worthy cause in her will. – Martin Bonner Feb 5 '18 at 12:53
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When you extrapolate trends in copyright legislation, then Harry Potter won't ever enter the public domain, because it's not older than Mickey Mouse.

For several decades the Walt Disney Corporation is investing a lot of lobbying resources into extending copyright protection durations. The reason they are doing this is because they don't want their classic cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck to ever fall into the public domain. They have successfully done this in 1976 and 1998. And as long as the company exists and still has the economical and cultural significance it had for the past decades, it will keep lobbying for further copyright duration extensions. Should Disney lose influence, other media companies will likely make up for it by increasing their lobbying efforts in order to protect their intellectual property from the past 100 years.

So unless all currently influential media companies die and get replaced by new companies whose main intellectual properties are all younger than Harry Potter or we see a major change in the way politicians make decisions about copyright legislations, we can not expect HP or any other currently popular IPs to ever become public domain.

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    This is not really accurate. Mickey Mouse won't enter public domain unless Disney stops using him, because Mickey Mouse is trademarked. The classic cartoons themselves ("Steamboat Willy", etc) will eventually enter public domain (though maybe not for a long time, depending on lobbying efforts). Using the cartoon and using the character are two different things. Admittedly, when "Steamboat Willy" finally does enter public domain, there are bound to be some interesting legal battles about the boundaries between using the character and using the cartoon. – Kyle A Feb 5 '18 at 19:16
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    @KyleA: A number of cartoons featuring other Disney characters have entered the public domain. The boxes for at least some videocassettes containing such cartoons explicitly state that the box artwork is a retouched reproduction of a frame from a cartoon contained therein, rather than being an original artwork using the character. – supercat Feb 6 '18 at 0:31
  • @supercat: Thanks. I wasn't aware of any public domain works with characters still trademarked, but what you described matches what I expected for such a situation. – Kyle A Feb 7 '18 at 22:19
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It's complicated

The duration of copyright governed by the country of origin. This is the country in which it was first published (for books) or released (for films) or, if published/released simultaneously in multiple countries, the country with the shortest copyright term. Simultaneously here means "within 30 days".

To further complicate this, not all countries observe the rule of the shorter term, including the United States. This means that a work may be public domain in some countries but still under copyright in others.

For the first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone's country of origin is the UK (published 26 June 1997) so the UK duration applies. This is 70 years after the calendar year of J.K. Rowling's death (which has not yet happened, of course).

Later books in the series were published simultaneously in many countries so the exercise has to be done to see which one of those gives the shortest term - I'm not going to do this.

The same applies to the films. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was "simultaneously" released in 34 counties (UK, USA, Canada, Ireland, Malta, Taiwan, Belgium, Philippines, Switzerland, Germany, Malaysia, Netherlands, Singapore, Austria, Brazil, Denmark, Finland, Mexico, Norway, Sweden, South Africa, Argentina, Australia, Chile, Israel, New Zealand, Colombia, Spain, Greece, Guatemala, Iceland, Portugal, Uruguay, Japan) - work out which of them has the shortest copyright term and you have your country of origin.

Because films have joint authors, the copyright term is measured from the last of the authors to die. You also need to determine who the "author(s)" of a film are. UK law defines the authors as all of the principal director, author of screenplay, author of dialogue, or composer of music specifically created for and used in the film (you will note that each of these could be multiple people). The US law doesn't define it - is it everyone who appears in the credits? If so, the UK duration will be shorter (or at least not longer) than the US duration.

Trademark

Notwithstanding the expiration of copyright, if elements of the property are still being used commercially (e.g. "Harry Potter", "Hogwarts", "Ministry of Magic", house logos etc.) they are protected by trademark law.

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    US law would probably call the films works for hire, giving them a flat 90 year term as corporate works. Also: The US does not apply the rule of the shorter term. – Kevin Feb 5 '18 at 7:07
  • @Kevin is right. A completed film (including all of the audio and music) is owned by the studio that financed it, not by the author of the screen play, the director, or the producer, or the score composer. Some of the people who work on films get royalties because of their work on it, but none of them will own any copy rights. If a studio wants to use a previously copyrighted work (e.g., a novel to be adapted into a movie or a rock song in the soundtrack), they will license that work and pay a licensing fee, and otherwise own the content of the movie (e.g., the screen play). – Todd Wilcox Feb 5 '18 at 7:37
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    also considering that said 70/90 year terms are already extensions of previous shorter terms, it's just safe to say that "long after we are all dead". – Lassi Kinnunen Feb 5 '18 at 8:13
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Other answers have covered the current copyright situation.

It's important not to assume this will apply in future though. The Sonny Bono Act was explicitly enacted to prevent Disney's copyrights from expiring. Since they have successfully done this once, it would be naive in the extreme to think they would not do the same again in future. It's a simple cost-benefit exercise - will the money from future income on copyrighted products exceed the cost of the bribes (ahem, "campaign contributions") to enough law-makers to swing the vote? If so, bring on the bribery (ahem, "political action committees").

Yay, free markets - so long as we are the only people allowed to set up stalls there...

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    This appears to be an attempt to pass comment on the political situation in America rather than a serious effort to answer the question. – Valorum Feb 5 '18 at 11:42
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    @Valorum No, this is something which must always be considered for copyright law. The Sonny Bono Act explicitly extended copyright to ensure a single company retained copyright to its most valuable property, and that company paid substantial amounts of money to law-makers. As the country responsible for producing and consuming a substantial amount of popular media, this affects the rest of the world too. If you're asking when something enters the public domain, the Sonny Bono Act is what sets when that happens. And the fact it was done once says clearly that it can be done again. – Graham Feb 5 '18 at 12:26
  • @Graham - It wasn't just Disney. There were a lot of companies lobbying for that extension. – Adamant Feb 5 '18 at 17:49
  • @Adamant: True--as long as you define "many" to include "a dozen or so." – Jerry Coffin Feb 5 '18 at 18:59

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