Public Domain: Using characters without permission

Jagged Edge Productions upcoming movie follows a revenge seeking Winnie the Pooh and Piglet, who are now depicted as bloodthirsty and feral murderers, hunting for a grown up Christopher Robin for abandoning them at Hundred Acre Woods. With that basic plot synopsis for Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey, you may wonder, how can they even make this movie without being sued? The answer is public domain.

A still from Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey
A still from Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey
(Jagged Edged Productions)

Public domain is a copyright license that means that the creative work behind it has no current owner/intellectual property behind it, meaning that others can use creative work in public domain on their own work. It can be applied to both characters and stories including Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes and Pinnochio.

Creative work can become public domain when the copyright license for it expires either 70 years after the original authors death or 95 years after the publication. In Blood and Honey´s case, since A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh story was published in 1926, it allowed the legal use of the characters to be made in early 2022 without the need of Disney´s permission, who bought the Winnie the Pooh copyright in 1961.

This doesn’t mean that all aspects of Winnie the Pooh can be used. Since Disney made their own changes to the character, those changes that they made do not fall under the public domain and rather are labeled as trademarks for Disney. This means that if a production/publisher were to include these trademarks, Disney would be able to seek legal action, which is why in Blood and Honey Pooh will be sporting a plaid shirt under overalls instead of his iconic red shirt.

poster for the mean one
Poster for The Mean One
(Sleight of Hand Productions)

To add on, the only characters who will be able to properly appear in the film are those introduced in the original Winnie the Pooh book. So characters like Tigger who appeared in later follow up books might not appear in the film. However, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t a chance for him to be included.

Jagged Edge Productions may use tactics similar to that of the new movie The Mean One in order to bring the bouncing tiger to the film. The movie is an adaption of Dr Suess´s The Grinch starring characters like the Grinch and Cindy-Lou Who, but depicted as a horror movie with Cindy-Lou seeking revenge on the Grinch for killing her parents. While The Grinch story isn’t in public domain, the movie is heavily marketed as a parody, making their own changes to the story and characters.

Cindy-Lou is changed to be Cindy You-Know-Who, with the Grinch only being labeled as the mean one to avoid the copyright license currently held by Universal Pictures. If Blood and Honey chooses to, there may be a chance we get a different interpretation of Tigger in the film without violating the copyright license.

Jagged Edge Productions has announced two more Disney horror remakes including Bambi: The Reckoning and Peter Pan: Neverland Nightmare , and with Mickey Mouse´s copyright license to expire in 2024, it will be interesting to see what the studio has to offer.