The law of copyright states that protection expires 75 years after the death of the author. Upon his death J.M Barrie left the rights to Peter Pan to Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH). As a special exception Great Ormond Street Hospital was given these rights in perpetuity (forever).
Should we give the same extension to any copyrights that have been left to charity? Is it fair that the law limits a donation made to a good cause?
What is the basic status in law?
Under the law, authors have “exclusive rights to authorise or prohibit any communication to the public of their works”. This means that only the copyright holder may distribute their work. This does not, however, usually extend to prequels, sequels, spin-offs or any other derivative works that are based on the original work.
In the UK this right expires after 75 years. There is no difference if the rights have been left to charity, family or any other individual or organisation. For example, the rights to Shakespeare’s plays have expired. This means they can be used by any individual without having to pay for the rights.
If rights were donated to charity, they would lose the monetary income after 75 years.
Therefore, is it beneficial to allow an exception for any donation of rights to be donated to charity? As the charities have a benefit to the public there could also be an argument for extending these rights to include any derivative work (sequel/spin off etc.).
What is the J.M Barrie law?
Great Ormond Street Hospital hold the rights to Peter Pan in perpetuity (forever). This was a special provision, not granted to any other charity.
This means that no individual can broadcast, publish, or produce a version of Peter Pan for stage without a license in the UK. However, sequels, prequels, spin offs and extracts among others are allowed.
As the right belongs to a charity, it would perhaps be beneficial to allow them to own copyright for the latter categories. This would prevent any large companies from taking advantage and not paying copyright, simply by skirting around the original work.
With the first year of gaining the copyrights (1929), the charity earned approximately £90,000 in income. This figure is an estimation, as Barrie requested the official numbers were kept confidential. The donation is a clear asset to the charity. If these rights can be expanded upon by granting further rights and developing UK law it may encourage more authors to do the same. Imagine the public benefit this could have to numerous charities, to have another stream of income.
Would there be support for this?
History shows there has been political support for extending the copyright gifted to a charity. The copyright given to GOSH should have expired in 2007. The exception created was due to the former Prime Minister Jim Callaghan campaigning to amend the Copyright Act. This was passed by parliament. As there has been political support for extensions, it is perhaps not too far of a stretch to ask they amend again.
There may also be support for this from the public. In 2015 Warner Bros. allegedly managed to use the derivative work loophole in creating the film PAN. As a result they had no obligation to pay licensing fees to GOSH. This created controversy with the public, many requested Warner Bros donate some proceeds to the charity. Warner Bros. has made no comment on this.
Even the film companies show support in helping charities. The charity does not receive income for DVDs and merchandise relating to Disney’s Peter Pan. However, Disney have partnered with GOSH to aid and support the hospital. Further to this, Miramax films hosted a Finding Neverland premier in honour of GOSH, as their film did not need to pay licensing fees. Clearly there are large film companies who are trying to find their own ways to contribute to the charity, when the law allows them to escape fees.
There are, however, two sides to every argument. Some argue that this extension to Peter Pan is preventing creative development of the story. If this is extended to other charities we may be preventing innovation. However, when an extension would add public benefit to charities, perhaps this is a price worth paying.
Emily and her fellow Student Law Office students are currently dealing with a complex intellectual property case. If you need advice about copyright, please feel free to get in touch with the Student Law Office. Should we have capacity, we may be able to offer you free legal advice.
This post was written by Emily Trotter. Emily is a final year MLaw Student at Northumbria University. She is currently working in a Business and Commercial firm in the Student Law Office. After graduating Emily will be taking part in Cultural Exchange Programme at Walt Disney World Florida, before pursuing a career in the legal departments of film production or publishing. Emily has previously worked for Warner Bros. Studios and has a keen interest in the film industry.