We are independent & ad-supported. We may earn a commission for purchases made through our links.
Advertiser Disclosure
Our website is an independent, advertising-supported platform. We provide our content free of charge to our readers, and to keep it that way, we rely on revenue generated through advertisements and affiliate partnerships. This means that when you click on certain links on our site and make a purchase, we may earn a commission. Learn more.
How We Make Money
We sustain our operations through affiliate commissions and advertising. If you click on an affiliate link and make a purchase, we may receive a commission from the merchant at no additional cost to you. We also display advertisements on our website, which help generate revenue to support our work and keep our content free for readers. Our editorial team operates independently of our advertising and affiliate partnerships to ensure that our content remains unbiased and focused on providing you with the best information and recommendations based on thorough research and honest evaluations. To remain transparent, we’ve provided a list of our current affiliate partners here.

What Are Public Domain Cartoons?

By Alan Rankin
Updated May 16, 2024
Our promise to you
MyLawQuestions is dedicated to creating trustworthy, high-quality content that always prioritizes transparency, integrity, and inclusivity above all else. Our ensure that our content creation and review process includes rigorous fact-checking, evidence-based, and continual updates to ensure accuracy and reliability.

Our Promise to you

Founded in 2002, our company has been a trusted resource for readers seeking informative and engaging content. Our dedication to quality remains unwavering—and will never change. We follow a strict editorial policy, ensuring that our content is authored by highly qualified professionals and edited by subject matter experts. This guarantees that everything we publish is objective, accurate, and trustworthy.

Over the years, we've refined our approach to cover a wide range of topics, providing readers with reliable and practical advice to enhance their knowledge and skills. That's why millions of readers turn to us each year. Join us in celebrating the joy of learning, guided by standards you can trust.

Editorial Standards

At MyLawQuestions, we are committed to creating content that you can trust. Our editorial process is designed to ensure that every piece of content we publish is accurate, reliable, and informative.

Our team of experienced writers and editors follows a strict set of guidelines to ensure the highest quality content. We conduct thorough research, fact-check all information, and rely on credible sources to back up our claims. Our content is reviewed by subject-matter experts to ensure accuracy and clarity.

We believe in transparency and maintain editorial independence from our advertisers. Our team does not receive direct compensation from advertisers, allowing us to create unbiased content that prioritizes your interests.

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.

MyLawQuestions is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By browncoat — On Jan 26, 2014

@Mor - I don't think it would have made much difference, to be honest. Look at the state of the pharmacy industry. If they are nearing the point where some formula is going to enter public domain, then they just change it slightly and re-patent it.

I imagine Disney would find some similar work-around and, if anything, creativity might actually go down.

Vintage cartoons get messed with enough without that kind of pressure on them as well.

By Mor — On Jan 25, 2014

@KoiwiGal - Public domain cartoons are actually relatively rare because of that. Mickey was was fairly early cartoon, so anyone who was diligent about keeping up with the paperwork was able to remain in control from almost the beginning of cartoons as an art-form.

I think it's a shame because so many good things can come from the re-mixing of public domain work. Look at all the fantastic adaptions of the world of OZ and the characters from Sherlock Holmes. These were only possible because those works had fallen out of copyright. Not to mention, if cartoon companies were forced to come up with original characters every time their cartoons entered in the public domain, we might have a much more interesting lexicon of cartoon characters right now.

By KoiwiGal — On Jan 25, 2014

I don't know all the details, but I do know that people often use Mickey Mouse as an example of a creative property that has driven the extension of copyright law. And most people seem to think this is actually a bad thing.

They basically keep going to court in order to extend the copyright so that no one can start legally using Mickey in ways that Disney doesn't permit. But in the process, they've made it difficult for anything to fall out of copyright and that means that many classic cartoons and other works of art (like music, books, pictures and so forth) remain under the control of people who might not want to share them.

For example, there are a lot of books from the 1970s and 1980s that can't be found these days because they have not yet entered the public domain and the people who hold their copyright don't want to go to the trouble of publishing them again.

MyLawQuestions, in your inbox

Our latest articles, guides, and more, delivered daily.

MyLawQuestions, in your inbox

Our latest articles, guides, and more, delivered daily.