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What Are Public Domain Cartoons?

Public domain cartoons are creative works free for anyone to use without permission or fees. They've outlived copyright terms, becoming a shared cultural treasure. Imagine harnessing these classics for your projects! Curious about which characters you can use? Let's dive deeper.
Alan Rankin
Alan Rankin

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.

Man with hands on his hips
Man with hands on his hips

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.

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Discussion Comments


@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.


@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.


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.

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