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Ownership of the Peter Pan works
Who owns Peter Pan is a complicated question. Is Peter Pan under copyright or trademark, or is he in the public domain? Fortunately it's gotten a little easier to answer this in recent years, because the answer in most of the world is now "public domain"... mostly.
Copyright laws vary from country to country. For example, the copyright term in most countries is based on the date of the creator's death: "so many" years later, his works become public property. In the US, copyright law has been based on the year the work was created: "so many" years later, it becomes public property (even if the creator were still alive). The length of these terms has changed profoundly in the decades since J. M. Barrie created Peter Pan; in response to lobbying from corporations with a lot of valuable characters in their portfolios, it keeps getting extended. (See PD56.org for a different perspective on copyright.)
In 1929, shortly after finally publishing the script to the Peter Pan play, Barrie gave the copyright to the works featuring Peter Pan to Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH), Britain's leading children's hospital, requesting that the value of the gift - which was substantial - not be disclosed. This gift was confirmed in his will. GOSH has exercised these rights internationally to support the work of the institution. According to international treaties (mainly the Berne Convention), the copyright laws that apply are (with a few exceptions) those of the country you're in, regardless of where the work was created.
United KingdomThe UK copyright originally expired at the end of 1987: 50 years after Barrie's death, which was the term at that time. A few people started to take advantage of that, but there was no big rush to exploit the character. The biggest impact of this expiration was that GOSH could no longer charge royalties for performance of the play, which has remained very popular in the UK. This came to the attention of former Prime Minister James Callaghan (still a Member of Parliament), who sponsored a bill granting GOSH a perpetual extension of some of the rights to the work, specifically the right to royalties for any performance, publication, or adaptation of the play. This is not a true perpetual copyright however, as it does not grant the hospital creative control over the use of the material, nor the right to refuse permission to use it. The law also does not cover the Peter Pan section of The Little White Bird, which pre-dates the play and was not therefore an "adaptation" of it. The exact phrasing is in section 301 of, and Schedule 6 to, the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988:
301. The provisions of Schedule 6 have effect for conferring on trustees for the benefit of the Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street, London, a right to a royalty in respect of the public performance, commercial publication, broadcasting or inclusion in a cable programme service of the play 'Peter Pan' by Sir James Matthew Barrie, or of any adaptation of that work, notwithstanding that copyright in the work expired on 31 December 1987.
This became moot in 1995, when a directive to harmonize copyright laws within the EU settled on 70 years for all member countries. (Most were already at 70 years, several were shorter, and Spain's was longer.) Although it's generally not accepted to take something that's in the public domain and place it back under copyright, they did. So Barrie's works went back under copyright protection (Peter Pan belonging to GOSH, the rest to his heirs) through December 31, 2007. The following day they became public domain again, with the provision that GOSH still gets to charge performance and publication royalties on the play within the UK.
There was some dispute with GOSH over just how broad their rights still were. They blustered about Lost Girls, a pornographic graphic novel by Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie featuring Wendy Darling, which was published in the US a year or so before their UK copyright expired. Top Shelf Publications made an agreement with GOSH to hold off on publishing a UK edition until 2008, then went ahead.
The laws are different in the US Under the Berne Convention, the copyright to Peter Pan transferred to GOSH just like in the UK, but the clock started ticking on its expiration long before Barrie died. When The Little White Bird was written, US copyrights lasted at most 42 years after publication, but this was extended to 56 years in 1909, so the copyright to LWB expired at the end of 1958. But that's not the version of Peter Pan that most people know and love, so that made little difference in terms of exploiting the character. The play and the original play Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up were was written and performed in 1904, but it wasn't published, so the clock didn't start ticking. In 1911, Peter and Wendy was published, in New York as well as London, and that is the story and characters that most people identify as "Peter Pan". The copyright to that book expired at the end of 1967.
However, the script of the play itself – which Barrie had continued to revise and add to – was not published until 1928, which meant that this version was still under copyright in 1978, when Congress extended the term from 56 years to 75. Which meant it was still under copyright when they did it again in 2003, to 95 years. The stage-play version of the story will not enter the public domain in the US until 2023. formerly used this as grounds to claim a blanket copyright to "Peter Pan", which led to some confrontations. Canadian small-press novelist J. E. Somma and GOSH settled out of court over her sequel After the Rain, A New Adventure for Peter Pan. Disney was a long-time licensee to the animation rights, but published Dave Barry's and Ridley Pearson's Peter and the Starcatchers in the US, defying GOSH's broad claim of copyright.
GOSH now acknowledges that the copyright for the novel version of the story has expired in the United States, and with it the copyright for the characters themselves. GOSH does still assert a copyright to the published version of the script, though they've expressed a lack of interest in pursuing someone who might include (copyrighted) bits from the play in an adaptation of the (public domain) novel. The film rights to the play have been licensed to Columbia/Sony (makers of the 2003 film) for the duration of that copyright.
The original versions of the play and novel are in the public domain in all countries where the term of copyright is 70 years (or less) after the death of the creators. This includes the European Union (except Spain), Australia, Canada, and most other countries. Afghanistan and Ethiopia do not have copyright laws of their own or recognize any international copyright treaties.
However, the work is still under copyright in several countries: until 2013 in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, where copyright lasts 75 years after the author's death; in Colombia and Spain until 2018, where the applicable term is 80 years after death; and in Mexico until 2038, where the term is 100 years after death. (It would also be under copyright in Cote d'Ivoire, Guatemala, and Honduras, but these countries recognize "the rule of the shorter term", which means that the term of the country of origin applies if it's shorter than their local term.) In these countries, GOSH is still the legal owner of Barrie's Peter Pan books and play.
Whether it's based on a work under copyright or in the public domain, any time someone creates a new adaptation, the copyright clock on everything they added gets set to zero years. So the dialog, the visual designs, the songs, and everything else that Disney added in their 1953 animated adaptation is still under copyright in the US, and will be through 2048 (95 years). In most other countries, it'll be 70 years after the deaths of the last director, I think, which puts it around 2060. A long time.
Trademark is a different beast. There is no time limit on a trademark: as long as you use it, you get to keep it. On the other hand, trademark rights are more limited than copyrights. All they cover is the right to use certain logos and product names in certain categories of business. What can and can't be trademarked is complicated, but there aren't a lot of trademark rights to be found in Neverland. The name Neverland has been in generic use for so long that it'd be hard to enforce as a trademark. The name Peter Pan has been registered as a trademark for things like peanut butter and bus lines, but that doesn't prevent anyone from using the name in a new novel about the character. As for putting the name in the title of a new work... that's starting to get touchy. And if you choose to swim in those waters, you'll need to watch out for both deep-pocketed claimants to the name: GOSH and Disney.
- Wikipedia: Ownership of the Peter Pan works