Copyright law is notoriously complicated, particularly in terms of its duration. Most artistic works, including books, remain in copyright until 70 years after the death of the author. However, some only last for 50 years. There was recently a tussle between lawmakers and some of the elder statesmen of music to get the copyright on recordings extended, when it became apparent that some of the early recordings of people like Cliff Richard and the Beatles were about to cease being protected, despite their writers and performers still being very much alive.
However, one very peculiar anomaly in the copyright world is that of “Peter Pan”. Its author, JM Barrie, has been deceased since 1937, but the work is still covered by copyright protection. JM Barrie gifted the copyright in his original play to Great Ormond Street Hospital in 1929 (subsequently confirming the gift in his will) and they have benefitted from it ever since, including proceeds from the famous Disney cartoon adaptation.
However, when the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988 was still being passed through Parliament, it became apparent that the copyright in “Peter Pan” was due to expire at the end of 1987. James Callaghan, former Prime Minister, but by then a normal backbencher, proposed an amendment to the proposed Act, extending Great Ormond Street’s rights in perpetuity. It remains the only work to receive this special treatment.
Great Ormond Street’s rights are not full copyright protection, but a right to receive royalties from any public performance of the play, any commercial publication of the play or any adaptation of it. This includes Barrie’s own original book adaptation, which is still a bedtime staple in most families. It allows Great Ormond Street to continue to receive an income stream from this most popular of tales.
The special treatment afforded to “Peter Pan” only applies in the UK and therefore the work has fallen out of copyright in some other jurisdictions, allowing unauthorised adaptations. However, in the UK, the copyright on “Peter Pan”, just like its titular character, never does grow up (or expire).