Wednesday, June 19, 2024

The unusual case of Peter Pan – part 1

This is the first post in a series covering the unusual case of Peter Pan regarding copyright and royalties. We are currently in the process of publishing a new pantomime version of the tale by Joe Meloy and thought it would be good to share the challenges of publishing or performing this ever-popular story.

Now, as a rule copyright in a work expires 70 years after the death of the author (this does vary in different countries), and the work then becomes known as in the ‘public domain’. Sometimes this can be extended, or rights passed to the estate of the author or a trust, so it is always best to double check before publishing a work which you think may be public domain.

Peter Pan however has always been a special case, as the author gifted the rights to Great Ormond Street hospital in 1929. Not only did the copyright cover the original work (which included both a novel and a play), but also any public performance of the work, with royalties being due to the Great Ormond Street Hospital charity.

Now, J.M Barrie died in 1937, meaning under the normal rules in the UK, his work would have become public domain in 2007, meaning Great Ormond Street would miss out on a substantial income from royalties. In many parts of the world, this is indeed the case, but not in the UK or the U.S.

In the UK, a change was made to the  Copyright Designs and Patents Act (CDPA) of 1988 which gave Great Ormond Street the right to royalties from any publication or adaptation of the original works, including stage, film, audio books etc., in perpetuity. In other words, in the UK, unless the act is changed again, Peter Pan, or any adaptation and performance of the work, attracts royalties payable to Great Ormond Street. In the U.S., copyright ends 90 years after publication, so there the copyright expires in 2023.

In reality, what does this mean? In the UK, this means that even if you write your own pantomime version of Peter Pan based on the original characters or story, if you publish or perform the work in the UK, you need to pay royalties to Great Ormond Street! This is, of course, on top of having to avoid any references to the Disney films, including the design of their characters and any of the songs.

Now, the mechanics of how this happens are not straight forward, and we will look deeper into this in part 2.

You can find out more about Peter Pan and its links to Great Ormond Street on their website:

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