Luke McGarry began drawing a nude Pooh Bear as soon as he heard the news. The original, nearly 100-year-old “bear of very little brain” from the Hundred Acre Wood had rung in this new year by entering the public domain. Now quite humbly, McGarry’s creative appetite felt rumbly.
McGarry waited a day to post his colorful cartoon on social media. Later he checked his accounts: “I didn’t think it was going to blow up like it did.” On Twitter alone, the illustration received nearly 40,000 likes. The artist realized his Pooh toon could bring some cash flow. “Had I anticipated there being any demand, I would’ve probably had prints done in advance.”
What the post did highlight is now that the mid-1920s iteration of Pooh Bear is available to anyone free of charge, he and pal Christopher Robin’s woods are packed with potential money pots.
Among the many works in this year’s public domain trove — now that their requisite 95-year period has ended under U.S. copyright law — are Felix Salten’s original “Bambi, a Life in the Woods” novel; titles by Ernest Hemingway, Langston Hughes and Dorothy Parker; classic silent films and Broadway songs; and about 400,000 pre-1923 sound recordings.
Yet Jennifer Jenkins, director of the Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke University, says most of the response she has received this year involves the gentle teddy bear co-created by British author and essayist A.A. Milne.
“I can’t get over how people are freaking out about Winnie-the-Pooh in a good way,” Jenkins says. “Everyone has a very specific story of the first time they read it or their parents gave them a doll or they [have] stories about their kids.” She ponders why early Pooh in the public domain resonates.
“It’s the ‘Ted Lasso’ effect,” she says. Right now especially, “We need a window into a world where people or animals behave with decency to one another.”
Milne unveiled the character Edward Bear in a 1924 collection of poetry, which led to the 1926 book “Winnie-the-Pooh,” whimsically illustrated by E.H. Shepard. Milne and Shepard, having survived the horrors of World War I battlefields, chose to turn sharply toward the warmth of an imaginary playland inspired by their own children’s stuffed toys. They introduced the anthropomorphic title teddy bear and such friends as Rabbit, Piglet, Owl, Kanga and child Roo, downcast donkey Eeyore and human Christopher Robin, named for Milne’s son. The first “Winnie-the-Pooh” tells a series of charming adventures, including thwarted attempts to score a little honey.
“Everything in that book — the plot, the dialogue, the setting, the events, the characters — that’s all public domain,” says Duke’s Jenkins, who notes that the character Tigger is not in the public domain because he was introduced in the 1928 follow-up book, “The House at Pooh Corner.”
The rights to the post-1926 Pooh-niverse, as Jenkins calls it, still belong to the Walt Disney Co. as a global juggernaut — centering on shows, films, toys and merchandise — that is among the world’s most profitable media franchises, in the stratosphere of Pokémon and Hello Kitty, according to an estimate in Statista.
So what types of adapted or derivative Pooh projects, exactly, are creators free to put into the marketplace?
“It’s up to them and their intellectual property lawyers to figure out where Disney is retreating to, and where Disney is going to put up a fight,” says Stuart Rees, a San Diego-based attorney whose intellectual property clients include hundreds of cartoonists and writers.
If you’re a writer or artist, for instance, “You can put original iterations of Pooh into any of your creative work” such as a film, musical or play, says Jenkins, while noting that Disney holds trademark rights on various “Winnie the Pooh” products, be it plush dolls or pajamas.
Jenkins points out that Disney itself has benefited from earlier public domain books and folk tales including those by Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve (“Beauty and the Beast”), the Brothers Grimm (“Snow White”) and Charles Perrault (“Sleeping Beauty” and “Cinderella”).
Those examples point to how different a “Winnie-the-Pooh”-inspired work can be. “Want to write a story about how Pooh and friends stay sane during a pandemic? (Eat more honey!)” Jenkins writes on the Duke center’s site. “Or a story in which Pooh and friends tackle online bullying? Now you can, without having to seek a license from Disney. This is how the public domain supports creativity.”
The Walt Disney Co. declined to provide a statement to The Washington Post about the ramifications of 1926’s “Winnie-the-Pooh” entering the public domain.
(The late producer Stephen Slesinger obtained exclusive rights to “Winnie-the-Pooh” works in 1930 from Milne, then in 1961 transferred them to Disney. The company and Slesinger’s heirs later fought over those rights for decades.)
McGarry, the artist and “Palaver” comic creator, says that many people particularly responded to a line in his cartoon about what’s ahead for Public Domain Pooh, as McGarry’s Christopher Robin says, “You’re not going to do anything weird, are you?”
How weird? Well, Ryan Reynolds delivered perhaps the first prominent spoof of Public Domain Pooh when he appeared in a video, posted Jan. 2 to YouTube, to promote his mobile service company by reading from a new “book,” “Winnie-the-Screwed.” The video has more than 3 million views.
Jenkins says future Public Domain Pooh works will be well-served by including disclaimers. “Say you draw something with the original characters — call it ‘Winnie the Pooh Goes to Mars’ — and you put a disclaimer that it’s not produced or sponsored by Disney. That dispels [consumer] confusion right there.”
But just how dark or bizarre or derivative might plays and books and movies and memes get now that Public Domain Pooh is fair game?
McGarry says he can point only to his air-of-menace punchline: “That remains to be seen.”