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There's a very good reason why studios have gleefully been putting so many fairy tale adaptations into production recently, and it's not just because there's seems to be a hefty public interest. The reality is that, thanks to copyright laws, after a set number of years right ownership expires and material enters the public domain, where anybody can use it for free. One such story that studios have been treating like the town bicycle is L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz. Released 110 years ago, which puts the book in public domain territory, it has been widely believed that anybody has the right to take the original story and characters and make a movie. Turns out that may not be the case.
THR has learned that because of their ownership of the 1939 adaptation with Judy Garland, Warner Bros. may have rights control over everything Wizard of Oz related. The controversy begins with the studios' lawsuit against a company called AVELA which, after finding and restoring Wizard of Oz publicity materials , began to use extracted images on "shirts, lunch boxes, music box lids, playing cards and more." The case moved to an eighth circuit court where it was to be determined what of the original story was public domain and what belonged to Warner Bros. The key part of the ruling stated "At the very least, the scope of the film copyrights covers all visual depictions of the film characters at issue, except for any aspects of the characters that were injected into the public domain by the publicity materials."
Obviously, this may prove to be a huge problem as there are nine - yes, nine - various adaptations of The Wizard of Oz currently in the works, the most high profile of which is Sam Raimi's Oz: The Great and Powerful (which just added Mad Men actress Abigail Spencer to its cast, according to THR). Said Aaron Moss, the chair of litigation at the lawfirm of Greenberg Glusker, "Any filmmaker that wants to create a new version of a literary work -- even one in the public domain -- needs to be careful not to use copyrightable elements of characters that first appear in protected motion picture versions of the works. Of course, when it comes to characters depicted by live actors, this may be easier said than done."
We can be fairly certain that the situation is about to blow up, with lawyers analyzing every inch of every Oz project in development and studios gathering their legal teams to do battle with Warner Bros. In addition to Spencer, Raimi has lined up James Franco, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis and Zack Braff to star in his film, and I find it hard to imagine that Disney, the studio behind the project, will let it go without a fight.