Is The Wizard of Oz in the public domain?
The children’s book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, written by L. Frank Baum in 1900 is in the public domain. This follows the general rule that any work published before 1923 is in the public domain.
The film, The Wizard of Oz, starring Judy Garland and directed in 1939 by Victor Fleming is NOT in the public domain. Instead, the copyright to The Wizard of Oz, is owned by its producer, the classic film studio MGM.
The law considers the film a “derivative work” of the original book. It creates an interesting legal situation when a film is still protected by copyright but the story that it is based on is not. Below I’ll describe what is and is not still protected by copyright law.
Recordings of the film itself, all of the recorded dialogue, and all still photos of the film, are still protected by copyright. All of the dialogue in the film version of the movie that does not appear word-for-word in the book is still protected by copyright.
Are the characters copyrighted and what does this mean to me?
Characters in the 1939 version of The Wizard of Oz are copyrighted. What this basically means to anyone trying to adapt the book into a movie or play is that you need to avoid inspiration from the Judy Garland version (to the best of your abilities). Maybe reread the other books and watch the other films to see how they've embodied the characters differently before you flex your creative muscles and reimagine the characters. If you are going to use the 1939 version as your inspiration, you are going to need permission from MGM studios, and good luck getting that. Any other path, and you risk getting sued.
How did this happen, you might ask? Well, in July of 2011, the Eight Circuit Court of Appeals tackled the issue of The Wizard of Oz and other film characters in the landmark case Warner Bros. Entertainment v. X One X Productions. Here, the iconic film characters seemed to possess so "consistent, wildly identifiable traits" in the court's eye. The court elaborated on their decision:
Put more simply, there is no evidence that one would be able to visualize the distinctive details of, for example, Clark Gable’s performance before watching the movie Gone with the Wind, even if one had read the book beforehand. At the very least, the scope of the film copyrights covers all visual depictions of the film characters at issue, except for any aspects of the characters that were injected into the public domain by the publicity materials.
One lawyer, Aaron Moss, opined that the court's decision was recognizing conventional wisdom when it came to the audience's attachment to a film:
The court's statement that the film copyrights cover 'all visual depictions' of the characters recognizes that there is often a quintessential version of a literary character that exists in the public's mind as a result of a popular film adaption.
The impact of this ruling resonated through the entertainment community. Moss cautions filmmakers when making newer film versions of literature, even if the literature is in the public domain. Such a conundrum faces adaptors of The Wizard of Oz due to the copyrightable nature of the 1939 film. How is one to remake the book, but make the characters different enough from that version?
- The movie you show must be legally obtained. This means you can't have illegally downloaded a copy of the movie.
- The movie must be screened by instructors or pupils, both simultaneously present in the room/space. Whoever is showing the movie must be present in the room with the students watching the film.
- The movie is shown in the course of face-to-face teaching activities of a non-profit education institution, in a classroom, or a similar place devoted to instruction (such as a studio, workshop, gymnasium, library, or auditorium). Don't just show The Wizard of Oz to entertain the kids: make it an educational experience. Use it to talk about narrative analysis, social issues, or other instructional purposes.
- The movie is used as an essential part of the core requirements of the curriculum. The movie should fit within the syllabus/requirement of the class. The Wizard of Oz wouldn't make sense in an algebra class, but it may work for another subject, i.e.: film, English, history, or sociology. Make sure it's relevant to the subject at hand.