In 1929, J.M. Barrie transferred the rights to his book Peter Pan to a children's hospital in London, called the Great Ormond Street Hospital. They now receive royalties from all adaptations of the story. When the rights expired, the British government reinstated them in perpetuity. But I don't know if that applies outside of the U.K., and I have read somewhere on SE that the story is now in the public domain, meaning it can be adapted by anyone who chooses to do so. Is this the case, or does the hospital control who is allowed to adapt it?
The FAQ on the Great Ormond Street Hospital website lays out quite nicely what you may do with Peter Pan. In short, if you plan to extensively use the characters, settings or plot (and you have any plans of doing business in the UK or US) you'll need to secure a licence:
Does Great Ormond Street Hospital have the copyright in Peter Pan in perpetuity?
No, the hospital has a right to royalty in perpetuity in the UK, but this is not a true copyright. This right was granted to the hospital by the Copyright Designs & Patents Act (1988) and applies to stage productions, broadcasting and publication of the whole or any substantial part of the work or an adaptation of it in the UK.
The play Peter Pan is in copyright in the US until 2023, and in Spain until 2017. This applies to stage adaptations of the story.
Peter Pan is in copyright in Mexico until 2037.
It is in the public domain in other parts of the world.
What do I need to do if I want to put up a production of Peter Pan?
For professional and amateur rights in the UK, USA and Spain, you need to obtain a licence from our theatre agents, Samuel French (UK and USA) and SGAE (Spain). You can find their contact details on our theatre agents list.
Peter Pan is in the public domain everywhere else so permission is not required outside the UK, USA, Mexico and Spain.
Can anyone now write a sequel, prequel or other spin-off using the characters from the original story of Peter Pan?
Yes, in the countries where Peter Pan's copyright has expired. Incidental use of character names usually doesn't require special permission as it would be considered "fair use" but if in doubt, check with the Peter Pan team at email@example.com.
The GOSH website is not 100% correct. The book, Peter and Wendy, is in the public domain in most countries in the world. This includes all the characters we know from Peter Pan, including settings like Neverland. The only place where GOSH is entitled to a royalty is in the United Kingdom, and it's not a true copyright either - GOSH does not have the ability to deny anyone the right to use it - only the right to collect a royalty when someone does. This is different from a copyright, where permission of use must be obtained.
The portions that are NOT in the public domain include any part of the story that was a part of the PLAY and not the BOOK. You also need to tread carefully with your portrayal of Peter Pan. Disney owns the trademark to the Peter Pan character we typically think of as Peter, and trademarks never enter the PD as long as they are in use.
Additional Explanation and details:
You'd have to do your own research for sources. I spent over 2 years researching the copyright status of Peter Pan, due to my own use of the IP in my creative properties. It took research and talking to an IP lawyer specialized in the entertainment industry to determine these facts. Perhaps I should say the GOSH website 'leaves out' some important information, not that it outright lies. The reality is, anything written prior to 1922 is in the PD in the United States, and can be used for whatever you want to use it for. Peter and Wendy was published in 1911, and that books sets out
all the characters and places we think of as Peter Pan. The pirates, the lost boys, the natives, the Indians, Wendy - Michael - John, etc. The play and book are not too different. HOWEVER, where there are differences, you need to be careful. If you use something from the play that is not in the book - it's not okay without permission from GOSH - since the play is still copyrighted for a few more years, and you'd need permission to use anything explicitly from the play that was not in the book. As for the UK thing: You need only read the bill that extended the perpetual royalty to GOSH.
The bill states that they do not have the power to deny use of the property - only that they have the right to collect a reasonable royalty for its use. How this is determined is beyond my knowledge, so you'll need to determine this on your own. Personally, I have simply avoided distribution of my products in the UK, so this did not apply to my situation. Additionally, Disney owns the 'trademark' to the Peter Pan character they created. You know, the leafy young boy? You can't make your peter look like him. Nor can you use the 'skull rock' setting, considering that is Disney.
Disney's property - they created it. Trademarks never expire as long as they are in use - so as long as Disney continues to release their likeness of Peter Pan, you can't use it. Bottom line. This was taught is business school. SO, the reality is: you can use whatever you want from the book Peter and Wendy - characters, settings, etc. You can use what you want from the play script, so long as it matches the 1911 book. What you can't use is anything from the play not in the 1911 book, or any setting or character created by Disney (their 1950 film is still copyright). You can't use the likeness of Peter Pan created by Disney, since they have a trademark (instead of a copyright) on their interpretation of him. You can make your own Peter look though - just don't make him in the Disney likeness. HOWEVER, this information applies to the United States (and most other counties). Do keep in mind though that in the UK, the perpetual royalty think complicates sales there a bit, as you'd need to determine how much and how to pay the royalty. In addition, there are still one or two countries where even the original book is still copyright.
It's also important that you don't use any copyrighted story elements from other adaptation that are still copyrighted. This is where it get real tricky. Since Peter and Wendy is PD, it has a lot of interpretations - books, movies, etc. Those ARE copyrighted, and if you inadvertently use something used by another person in their interpretation, you could get in trouble. You can't be 100% certain you're in the clear here, so you'd need to take a leap of faith.
Also a note: GOSH has used the excuse that because the play is still copyrighted, you cannot use anything from the play at all without permission. This is false, considering the play is nearly identical to the 1911 book. In reality, you can use anything from the play that is not original to the play itself, which is very little. They have also tried to claim that you can't do any stage versions without their permission, which is also false. You can't perform the original play as written, no - but you can adapt the book 'Peter and Wendy' into a play without issue.
As much as a support GOSH and what they do - they, much like Disney, have been trying to circumvent the copyright system for their own benefit - which I don't agree with.
You cannot re-copyright something by publishing a new version of it, no matter how hard you try. I always found this laughable - and GOSH has stood by this very claim in the past. You cannot re-copyright the Peter and Wendy book by publishing it as a play later on, any more than I can re-copyright Shakespeare by writing a book version of it similar to the original play.
Personally, I still choose to send a 'royalty' check to GOSH, despite the fact I don't need to - and didn't even work directly with them. It's the right thing to do - considering the gift Barry gave them and their work they do with children. I consider it more a donation than a royalty, but it works well for me.