Just how does a 100-year-old fictional bear called “Pooh”, keep making such a stink in the world of intellectual property?
Going on a Bear Hunt
The demise of Winnie-the-Pooh was much exaggerated at the beginning of this year. We’re talking about copyright, of course, and the effect on this IP right when it lapses into the public domain. As happened on New Year’s Day this year, when the first Winnie-the-Pooh story from A. A. Milne published in 1926, came ‘out of copyright’ under U.S. law meaning it became unprotectable. For IP geeks, this occurs in the U.S. when authorship lapses into the public domain after 95 years from first publication or 120 years after creation, whichever is the sooner.
On its face, this might look like a big deal. Open season perhaps for the images and story lines of the lovable bear to be replicated and used for all kinds of money-making schemes and advertising bonanzas. Reality is a bit different.
Your first thought (maybe not) might be ‘but what about Disney?’
Well, let’s unpick the facts here before we wrongly steal an image. The lapsed copyright is limited. Milne wrote four Winnie-the-Pooh books. It’s only the first that came out of copyright in January. Moreover, it’s only the E. H. Shepard whimsical sketches of the bear and the other characters in that first book that came out with the storyline.
Disney didn’t acquire the rights to the book until 1961 and the image of Winnie-the-Pooh you have in the back of your mind right now is probably the Disney bear with the short, tight, red sweater that won’t cover his tubby belly. Disney released its first animated Pooh bear work in 1966. All this history means that image doesn’t come out of copyright protection for another 40 years.
What folk can now do is freely copy, publish, and distribute new works based upon the first book without a license. This could lead to a new animated adaption of the work perhaps even with new artwork. Whatever might come from this newfound copyright freedom, the Disney image of Winnie-the-Pooh remains the strongest and is much more recognisable than that in the first book or any subsequent Milne book featuring his version of Pooh. Disney are quite probably very relaxed about the true copyright position.
For the sort of use now permitted, look no further than actor Ryan Reynolds’s advertisement this year for Mint Mobile. It’s on YouTube. Reynolds, comedically, introduces us to a new character called Winnie-the Screwed. A hapless Winnie whose signed up to the ‘wrong’ mobile deal. Side-splitting it isn’t. Careful, it is. That is, to follow the book one storyline and original sketch-style bear. The breath of the IP lawyer sitting right behind Reynolds would be visible in a colder studio.
Or so it seems to stick in the throat of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Here’s how, the ‘why’ is pretty much unfathomable for a world statesman of such stature and leader of 1.4 billion souls.
The cute, red-vested Disney Winnie-the-Pooh is banned in China. Yes, really. Clever bloggers ‘having a pop’ at Xi Jinping have likened Disney’s image of Winnie to the Chinese leader. Evidently, China’s censors will not tolerate ridicule of the country’s leader with such comparisons. It’s not harmless fun, apparently. The cartoon character is blocked from China’s social media sites. Wiped out. It’s as if our simple-minded, little honey-loving-friend never existed.
If it’s not Here, that means it’s out There
It’s been reported and confirmed by a BBC correspondent for China that the country does have the capability to control its social media in this way. Lest you doubt it. The BBC used the example of the Chinese dissident, 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner and writer Liu Xiaobo. A man effectively expunged from all Chinese social media content. So much so, the public of China largely haven’t a clue who he is. He died after nine years in prison whilst out on medical parole in 2017.
To the social media user, messages look like they’ve been sent – perhaps a Pooh meme – but simply never arrive. The 2018 Disney movie Christopher Robin was well-received worldwide. But, not in China, where all Winnie-the-Pooh content was censored. ‘Dangerous’ dissident voices and fictional cartoon bears being treated equally in The People’s Republic of China.
Those who are clever, who have a brain, never understand anything
In the words of one commentator, the apparent daftness of banning Winnie in China fails to take into consideration how his image…
“…has grown beyond his apolitical roots. He has instead become a symbol of resistance against Xi Jinping’s regime”.
As Jinping cements his reign over China for many more years, perhaps even for life, it’s hard to see a way into China for our golden bear anytime soon. We wouldn’t want him to try his luck prematurely and risk life-imprisonment.
Quite how we have come from a fictional creation for children in the 1920’s, to exile from the Middle Kingdom in the span of a century, says more about our modern world and the precious egos of its leaders than it does about copyright law.
Still, we live in interesting times and intellectual property disputes somehow manage to set the backdrop to so many tales of these times. The story of Winnie-the-Pooh is no different. Kids plaything to outcast political icon.
“I always get where I’m going by walking away from where I’ve been”, said Winnie.
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Written and researched by Ben Fairclough