Winne-the-Pooh in the Public Domain
On January 1, 2022, Winnie-the-Pooh and the other characters from the Hundred Acre Wood entered the public domain.
A copyrighted work enters the public domain after the author’s copyright protection expires. For works created after January 1, 1978, copyright protection will last for the life of the author plus 70 years additionally. If the work was made anonymously or under a pseudo name, or if the work was made for hire, copyright protection will last 95 years from the date of publication or 120 years from the date of creation. Works created after January 1, 1978, are not subject to copyright renewal, however, it is optional after 28 years and provides legal benefits. See 17 USCS § 305.
Although A.A. Milne’s characters from his 1926 books entered the public domain, Disney’s iteration remains copyright protected for now. This is because the characters have multiple authors, including A.A. Milne who first published Winnie-the-Pooh in 1926, and The Walt Disney Company, which brought the stories to the screen. See IP Watchdog.
What happens when a work enters the public domain?
Works within the public domain are not protected by the copyright of others and are free to use the works without obtaining authorization from anyone or paying any compensation so they often become a canvass upon which new ideas and exciting derivatives are created. However, you must disclaim the public domain content within your derivative work if registration is sought.
Use caution when using works in the public domain
Before using a copyrighted work, you will need to determine whether the copyright protection has in fact expired. It is often difficult or even impossible to determine with absolute certainty whether a particular work is a public domain work. The Copyright Office does not maintain a register of public domain works.
Whenever practical, you should reach out to the author of the work to confirm permission.
Works always within the public domain
In addition to expired copyrights, there are some other works that are always within the public domain.
Works whose protection has expired due to pre-1923 publication in the United States or the failure to comply with prior statutory formalities (such as notice and renewal).
Facts, ideas, U.S. government works, laws and regulations, legislative materials, judicial opinions, and scientific or mathematical formulae or principles works are not copyrightable.
If the author clearly states that they are disclaiming copyright in the work, it immediately enters the public domain.