December 31, 2002  ·  Lessig

Two weeks ago at the Creative Commons launch, I tried to sell the virtues of building rather than suing. The reality is that we need to do both. As Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society has announced, we filed a lawsuit last week to defend the right of Emily Somma to distribute a children’s book that builds upon the story of Peter Pan.

Peter Pan was created by Scottish playwright James M. Barrie (1860-1937). The character was born in a 1902 book called The Little White Bird and then developed into the play Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, in 1904. In 1906, the section of The Little White Bird that originated Peter Pan was published separately as a book called Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. Finally, Barrie turned his highly successful play into a book called Peter and Wendy in 1911.

All these works have entered the public domain in America. But because Barrie continued to produce works based on the Peter Pan story, the holders of those copyrights claim that there can be no derivative works using the Peter Pan character so long as those later works remain under copyright. (In England, by special law, the copyright for Barrie’s work is perpetual). Thus, the holders of Barrie’s copyright claim a perpetual right to control derivative works based on Peter Pan, even though the original work passed into the public domain.

Emily Somma, a Canadian, has written a wonderful children’s book, After the Rain, that uses some of the Peter Pan story, but for very different ends. Peter Pan, you might remember, is afraid of growing up. In Somma’s story, children rescue Peter Pan from this fear. Thus, like the best of derivative works, Somma’s story builds on the past, but does something different with it.

Yet Somma is now threatened with a legal action in the United States if she distributes her book in the United States, even though her work plainly builds on work that is in the public domain. This, we believe, is wrong. It is just one example of an important class of cases where current copyright holders demand the right to control the use of work that is in the public domain just because their work builds upon work that is now in the public domain.

Stay tuned for more news, or tune your reader to the CIS RSS feed for updates on the case. Peter Pan is already free. It’s time the law (and lawyers) to recognize it.

  • Anonymous

    Is the perpetual right to the Peter Pan play in the U.K. a copyright, or a performance right only ?

    Who is threatening the author in the U.S. Have the threats been posted at Chillingeffects ?

  • Neil S.

    The Peter Pan perpetual copyright clause is an interesting one. It’s a special explicit exception granting a royalty to Great Ormand Street children’s hospital for all commercial performances.

    http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Pan

  • fanofthepan

    Upon doing some research about Peter Pan’s public domain status, i ran across this blog. I also want to state that i found out that in January 2004 the defendant hospital in this case was finally served papers. Whew. that took long enough. The wheels of justice move very slowly across the international waters.