“Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin.”
Millions have read and come to love those opening words. They belong to A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh. But as of 2022, they belong to everyone else too.
This year, Winnie-the-Pooh enters the public domain. Now anyone can copy it, sell it, or even make new stories out of it.
In the United States, copyright lasts 95 years. When creators copyright artistic works—such as stories, characters, or drawings—those ideas become protected. Nobody else can use them without permission. Creators can keep the works, lend them out, or even sell them entirely.
But at the turn of every year, a fresh batch of 95-year-old works becomes available on Public Domain Day.
This year includes thousands of books, films, and sound recordings—including everyone’s favorite honey-loving bear. Everything in Milne’s original Winnie-the-Pooh is now free for public use—that includes the illustrations by Ernest Shepard.
But writers and artists beware: Tigger comes from the second book. He won’t bounce into public domain for two more years. Likewise, Pooh’s iconic red shirt still belongs to Disney.
Copyright can get complicated, but it also protects intellectual property from theft. That protection helps writers and artists feel free to create.
But when does preventing theft turn into greed?
Before 1978, copyright lasted only 75 years. Companies like Disney pushed for longer terms. They didn’t want to lose the rights to (or profits from) their characters. As a result, the Copyright Term Extension Act—which some mockingly called the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act”—became law. It extended copyrights by 20 years.
That’s longer than some works can last. Films and sound recordings deteriorate over time. With nobody allowed to copy them, some works might disappear forever.
“After 95 years, many of these works are already lost or literally disintegrating,” says Jennifer Jenkins, director of Duke’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain. She calls this “evidence of what long copyright terms do to the conservation of cultural artifacts.”
Along with Winnie-the-Pooh, Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises also goes public this year. That title comes from Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes tells us that everything has a season, including “a time to keep, and a time to cast away.” (Ecclesiastes 3:6)
For now, copyright’s 95-year “time to keep” is here to stay.
Why? Good laws protect people’s property—even ideas!—from theft. But lawmakers also need wisdom to see how laws might accidentally cause harm.