Illegal Shades of Green

Intellectual property law in Oz


Last week I noted the bizarre legal issues that come up when a literary creation is in the public domain but certain elements of its world are still protected by copyright. My example was Sherlock Holmes, but over the weekend The New York Times published a piece about an even odder case: the land of Oz.

All of L. Frank Baum's original Oz books are in the public domain, but the 1939 Wizard of Oz movie is not; and most people's impressions of Oz owe more to that film than to anything else. So while Disney didn't have to ask anyone's permission to make Oz the Great and Powerful, due to hit theaters this weekend, the moviemakers had to tread carefully when including anything that might seem to harken back to MGM rather than Baum. Among the results:

Striving for a visage different from the one Margaret Hamilton made famous, Howard Berger, an Oscar-winning makeup artist, "was finally able to come up with a shade of green which satisfied Disney's legal team," SlashFilm.com reported after a visit to the set.

Copyright law is weird.

Bonus link: I recently re-read the Baum books with my older daughter, and I'm happy to report that most of them hold up. (Especially The Tin Woodman of Oz, a gloriously weird story whose identity games venture into almost Phildickian territory.) If you're thinking of plunging into the series yourself, Mari Ness' Oz Re-Read is a nice guide.

Update, March 24: I have now seen the new movie, and I can report that it is full of allusions, both visual and aural, to the MGM film. All those nods seem like fair use to me, but then, so does a recreation of Margaret Hamilton's hue. Perhaps the Times and SlashFilm reporters were confused. Or perhaps copyright law is even weirder than I thought.