What happens when Batman and Superman enter the public domain?

  • Warner Bros. Discovery lays out a 10-year plan for DC movies similar to Marvel.
  • After the next decade, however, DC characters like Superman and Batman will enter the public domain.
  • But legal experts say the matter is complicated.

DC goes through a reset.

The comics and entertainment company’s new parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery, recently announced a “10 year planfor the DC brand on the big screen to better compete with Disney’s Marvel.

But as DC charts a new course over the next decade, it could face even bigger problems at the end of the tunnel.

“Warner Bros. has a monopoly on making Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman movies, but time is running out,” entertainment attorney Larry Zerner told Insider.

Starting in 2034, DC’s most important characters, and some of the world’s most recognized characters, will enter the public domain – at which time they could be up for grabs for businesses outside of DC and its company. mother.

But Insider spoke to two legal experts who specialize in copyright and trademarks, who said the issue is far more complicated than it appears and there is little precedent for it. characters of this stature and popularity – who generate millions of dollars in merchandising. sell and direct blockbuster big-budget films – entering the public domain. The closest recent example might be Mickey Mouse.

“The courts will have a say in deciding these cases,” said Robert Greener, a New York-based attorney. “There is no precedent that I can think of…this will be a developing area of ​​law.”

Obstacles would arise to use Superman and Batman, even after they are in the public domain

Under US law, works introduced before 1978 enter the public domain 95 years after they were first published, officially taking effect the following January 1. In the case of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, they made their first published appearances in 1938, 1939, and 1941, respectively. Therefore:

  • Superman would enter the public domain on January 1, 2034.
  • Batman on January 1, 2035.
  • Wonder Woman on January 1, 2037.

These characters are the crown jewels of DC, and therefore extremely important to Warner Bros. Discovery. The company is likely to fight, and anyone looking to leverage it in the public domain would face an uphill battle, Zerner and Greener told Insider.

For starters, Greener noted that there were a lot of potentially “derivative” works of the characters. In other words, the copyright holder – DC – creates a separate second work based on the original work.

“The Superman of 2022 has nothing to do with the Superman of 1938,” he said.

When DC originally introduced Superman, he could only leap tall buildings with a single bound – he couldn’t fly. The character has gone through several revisions over the years, much like other comic book characters including Batman and Wonder Woman.

To put it simply, comic book history is generally divided into several eras, including the Golden Age, which covers the 1930s through the 1950s; the Silver Age, which spans the late 1950s through the 1970s; the Bronze Age, which spans from 1970 to the mid-1980s; and the Modern Era, which spans the mid-1980s to the present.

“If someone were to make a Superman movie in 2034, and they didn’t steal, would that still violate copyright?” said Zerner. “This matter will be argued.”

The second biggest hurdle concerns trademark law, experts said.

“A copyright reflects the physical image, but a trademark has a public meaning and perception that goes beyond that,” Greener said. “It’s conceptual. The brand covers the brand identity.”

He explained that Superman has been associated with a DC-specific brand and storytelling for years, and something else could “intrude on the public’s mind with what they understand Superman to be.”

“There would be two competitors in the market, and trademark law doesn’t like that,” Greener said.

There are similar cases to DC’s future public domain fight

While there is no comparable precedent for what could result from these DC characters being in the public domain, there are similar cases.

“Steamboat Willie”, the first iteration of Mickey Mouse, is expected to enter the public domain in 2024. This version of the character is very different from modern Mickey Mouse, who would likely still be copyrighted. Some Republican lawmakers have vowed to stop Disney from trying to extend copyright protection to Steamboat, The Los Angeles Times reported in May.

Still, Zerner said artists should make it clear that their version isn’t associated with Disney.

“The brand is an identifier,” he said. “There is no character and company more synonymous than Mickey and Disney. I don’t know if there will be a wave of Mikey Mouse scams in the years to come, but there might be. “