Intellectual Property

Illegal Shades of Green

Intellectual property law in Oz


This is the socialist one.

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," 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.

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  1. I read the original to my kids recently. It didn’t hold up nearly so well for me. It seemed to be very much of an era – like Alice in Wonderland. Ooh, look! That’s odd! Oooh, look! This is strange!

    I credit the whole phenomenon to nostalgia. I thought “Super Friends” was great until I saw it again recently. Wow, did we watch crap when I was a kid.

    The classic kids books don’t seem to be nearly up to snuff after reading more modern stuff like Harry Potter. We are about to embark on an exploration of Roald Dahl. I hope he holds up better…. I really loved Dahl as a kid.

    1. Roald Dahl’s autobiography is one hell of a page turner. I’m thinking of buying it.

    2. I watched Looney Tunes as a kid. It was old when I watched it, even older now, but it still holds up. The only other cartoon I regularly watched was Scooby Doo, which still holds up despite the dating of the guest stars.

      There was a LOT of tripe in TV, fortunately I managed to avoid it.

    3. “meanwhile, in the great hall of the Justice League…”

    4. You know what does hold up well? Winnie the Pooh. Forget the cartoon, the original book is actually hilarious. I got it free on my iPod, and started reading it out loud to my mom.

      We were bursting out laughing within a couple pages. It’s pretty dry humor actually, everything’s written deadpan but the actual goings on don’t match the tone. Good for adults and kids, especially if you read out loud to them. Presentation matters a lot when it comes to little ones.

  2. I just picked up a nice leather bound copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales to start reading to my kid.

    I’m debating a copy of Struwwelpeter, based on the theory that every child needs a little high-octane nightmare fuel.

    1. Aaargh! My mom’s German penpal sent us a Struwwelpeter book when I was a wee tike. It creeped the hell out of me as a kid, especially the Daumenlutscher. The book does much to explain the German national psyche.

    2. Check out Adam Gidwitz’s reimagining of Grimm. Brutal, gory, scary and really sweet at the same time.

  3. I like the Baum books.

    This copyright business is interesting, because they’re not actually going back directly to the books–at least, not entirely–as I don’t think there was one on the Wizard of Oz coming to, well, Oz.

    I’ve heard that Warner has attempted to strengthen their protection by trademarking various things from the 1939 musical, though that’s likely a stretch.

  4. Since the original Oz books are in the public domain, they can probably all be found at the Project Gutenburg. Here, for example, is The Tin Woodman of Oz.

  5. “Illegal Shades of Green”

    Yeah, plant the idea of Oz-themed erotica. Pervert.

    1. Rule 34, to the white courtesy phone, Rule 34…

      1. “For her 18th birthday party, Dorothy invited the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, the Cowardly Lion, Ozma, and several munchkins. After several Tom Collinses, they…”

        1. “…and so Dorothy learned why there were called Munchkins, THE END.”

  6. 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.

    Because allegory for the Silverite movement never gets old.

  7. “a gloriously weird story whose identity games venture into almost Phildickian territory.”

    So you have to take LSD to really understand it? I thought that was de rigueur to truly grok Philip K. Dick?

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