Public domain cartoons are animated films that are not protected by copyright. The term “public domain” refers to any creative work that has fallen outside the limits of copyright law for one reason or another. This means that these works can be copied or adapted by others without paying a copyright holder for usage rights. Public domain cartoons include the early works of great studios and famous characters in which the copyright was allowed to lapse. Consequently, these cartoons are widely and cheaply available on home video and the Internet.
Under many copyright laws and international agreements such as the Berne Convention, most creative works are protected by copyright for the life of the creator plus several decades. This provides continuing incomes to artists and their heirs, at least in principle. During the first half of the 20th century, when many early animation studios were formed, copyright law in the United States required registration and renewal for the continued protection of works. Some cartoonists failed to comply with this requirement because of insufficient legal advice or through underestimating the lasting appeal of their characters. Early animated shorts featuring the likes of Popeye, Superman and Bugs Bunny have all become public domain cartoons.
Animation was a new technology in the early 20th century. Pioneering cartoonists such as Winsor McCay, Walt Disney and the Fleischer brothers, Max and Dave, worked with various companies and partnerships when creating their groundbreaking cartoons. In these shifting times, legal renewals were sometimes overlooked, allowing copyright protection to lapse. After these cartoonists had established studios in the 1930s and '40s, they had legal departments to protect their valuable copyrights. Some early works of these great artists, however, had become public domain cartoons in the meantime.
Television became a widespread entertainment medium in the 1950s, and cartoons were soon a staple of daily programming. Marketers and programmers realized that they could air public domain cartoons without paying a licensing fee. When the home video market launched in the 1980s, other companies seized this same opportunity. As a result, these cartoons became widely available on videocassette and digital versatile disc (DVD), often produced with cheap materials and packaging. Many of these companies relied on the familiar names of the characters and cartoonists to sell their products without seeking further quality control.
Public domain cartoons might still have some copyright protections, such as protection of a song or a character. As interest in classic animation grew in the late 20th century, some studios released high-quality home video versions of these cartoons. Many of them also are available for viewing for free on Internet video sites. As with the home video releases, the quality might vary, depending on the individual website.