From “The Great Gatsby” to Mickey Mouse: What Happens When a Property Becomes Public Domain?

Photo Courtesy: Disney/Emmys; Warner Bros. Pictures/IMDb; Charles Scribner's Sons/Goodreads

Back in 2016, a U.S. district judge approved a settlement that firmly placed “Happy Birthday to You” in the public domain. Warner/Chappell Music, a music publishing company that had acquired the company that previously claimed ownership of the song in 1988, collected “Happy Birthday to You” royalties for years — and planned to do so until at least 2030. After the ruling, the plaintiffs' attorney noted that “Strong copyright protection is important for artists and content creators, but it must have limits. This landmark ruling recognizes the value of the public domain.”

While, for most of us, the copyright status of something as ubiquitous as “Happy Birthday to You” wasn’t really at the forefront of our minds, that notion changes when it comes to a particularly popular book, film or character. More recently, on January 1, 2021, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby came into the public domain.

“It has almost the status of a holy work, and it’s seen as embodying all kinds of things about American values and society,” literary scholar James L. W. West III told Time. And, while writers will now have the opportunity to pen their own sequels or prequels using Fitzgerald’s book as source material, West cautions against it, suggesting that it would be hard to live up to Fitzgerald’s abilities. Of course, that won’t stop eager fans and writers from taking the work into their own hands now that it’s available.

This matter of works coming into the public domain isn’t contained to “Happy Birthday to You” and The Great Gatsby. It isn’t even contained to music, books and movies. In fact, one of the most contentious debates regarding public domain revolves around one of the world’s most well-known and beloved fictional characters — Mickey Mouse.