Is The Wizard of Oz in the public domain?

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 general look of the characters as seen in the illustrations as well as the words and the plot of the book are protected by copyright to the extent that those things can be protected. All of the dialogue in the film that appears in the book is in the public domain. So don't take an original line from the 1939 movie. Costumes are almost never subject to copyright, so the costumes can be reproduced.
The specific look of the characters has a thin level of protection; those iconic looks are only protected to the extent they differ materially from the illustrations in the original book. This means that if you’d like to draw and sell a photo of the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz, you can draw him similar to or an exact replica of the Tin Man from the original children’s book. But this also means that copying young Judy's Dorothy down to the very detail may get you into trouble. Having an actress that sounds exactly like her and looks exactly like her may get you into trouble. Similarly, your actress can wear red shoes, but she can't wear The Ruby Slippers. 
Notwithstanding its legality, drawing an exact replica of the book’s character can result in MGM suing you. Please don’t let this discourage you from using The Wizard of Oz in your work or allowing it to influence you. Be aware that copyright law allows you to use any work, whether it’s copyright protected or not, in a way that is fair and promotes the purpose of copyright law: to allow the public to benefit from creative works.
Because The Wizard of Oz and its subsequent books are such beloved works and have been in the public domain for quite a while, there is a rich selection of books written by different writers other than L. Frank Baum that use characters from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as well as the same setting. Wikipedia has an extensive discussion regarding all of the non-canon Oz-related stories. 
In addition to Baum’s Oz books, both of Jack Snow's Oz books are in the public domain in the United States. Ruth Plumly Thompson's The Royal Book of Oz, Kabumpo in Oz, The Wishing Horse of Oz, Captain Salt in Oz, Handy Mandy in Oz, The Silver Princess in Oz, and Ozoplaning with the Wizard of Oz are all derivative works of the public domain Oz books and are public domain themselves. However, not all of Thompson’s Oz books are in the public domain: The Lost King of Oz and The Giant Horse of Oz both are still protected under copyright law.
Can I legally show The Wizard of Oz at a screening?
One of the many rights a copyright holder maintains is the right to publicly display their work. This includes showing a movie to a wide audience. When you purchase a DVD or rent a movie, you're allowed to view the film in the privacy of your own home with your family and friends. However, family and friends does not extend to a large group of people. If you want to show the movie to summer campers, you must obtain a license for $100 from Swank. Some schools and libraries already pay an annual license fee to cover these usages; to find out if one is nearby, you can contact Swank at 1-800-876-5577. If you want to screen the movie in an outdoor venue, expect to pay between $150-250, depending on how new the film is and how many are expected to be in attendance. A way around paying a fee would be also to fall within the "education exception." This requires:
  1. The movie you show must be legally obtained. This means you can't have illegally downloaded a copy of the movie.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
Or you can also show this film or other ones for free from a television or radio broadcast.
Have a question about your Wizard of Oz related project? Feel free to contact New Media Rights via our contact form to find out whether you qualify for free or reduced fee legal services. We also offer competitive full fee legal services on a selective basis. For more information on the services we provide click here.

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