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If a cartoon is in the public domain what does that mean exactly? For example these are all in the public domain:

Does that mean I can play the video's as much as I want to any size crowd I wanted? Could I charge money to watch the videos? What about the characters in the videos, could I make a new Bugs Bunny or Might Mouse animation on my own? If something is in the public domain does that mean all the parts of that thing are? If I wanted to use Popeye or Betty Boop or daffy duck in a video game could I?

  • I don't know enough to properly answer, but I do know that HP Lovecraft's works are famously in the public domain, and have been used over the decades (particularly in the realm of gaming) to create many works that are presumably themselves protected, despite being based on someone else's public domain creations. Researching his Mythos might go a long way to illustrating what you can or cannot do with such material. – Steve-O Apr 9 '18 at 15:32
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Public domain means that there is no (longer) copyright in the given work. This means that all rights associated with copyright are not controlled by anyone and there is no way to run afoul of copyright laws (note that in some countries a true "public domain" doesn't exist). Assuming you're correct that these works are in public domain, answers to your particular questions are:

Does that mean I can play the video's as much as I want to any size crowd I wanted? Could I charge money to watch the videos?

Yes and yes.

If something is in the public domain does that mean all the parts of that thing are?

This kind of begs the question. A work in public domain has no copyright in it. If one of its part has copyright, then it's not really public domain is it?

What about the characters in the videos, could I make a new Bugs Bunny or Might Mouse animation on my own?

If I wanted to use Popeye or Betty Boop or daffy duck in a video game could I?

Copyright isn't your issue here, trademarks are. The characters are most likely trademarked, meaning you generally can't use them in your own works without licensing.

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So each question I will address separately:

  1. Yes.

  2. Yes... but so can everyone else. This is more plausible with printed works as many book companies do sell their own unabridged copy of copyrighted works.

  3. Eeeeeh... it depends. If the entire body of works that character is in is public domain, than yeah, it's easy. The Novel Dracula is Public Domain and the novel version of the character is everywhere in modern fiction. However, Bugs Bunny and Mighty Mouse are not in the public domain in their entirety. With respect to the Bugs cartoon, the copyright lasped because the studio stopped showing it due to the controversial nature of the work. There are Bugs Bunny Cartoons before and after it that are still under copyright.

  4. Not necessarily. Under modern law, a copyright is held until the holder stops producing new works and the copyright lapses. So while some works might be public domain, not all the characters featured might be in the Public Domain. Consider the case of the characters of the Superhero Blue Beetle: There are, for copyrighted purposes, 4 versions of the Superhero: Dan Garret, Dan Garrett, Ted Kord, and Jamie Reyes. Of these four, only Dan Garret (the one with one t in his last name) is public domain. He can be used by everyone, but D.C. (also owned by Warner Bros.) will be very defensive of Garret because they own Garrett, Kord, and Reyes and publish each as "The Blue Beetle". Since copyright infringement is a civil law violation, not criminal, DC can hit you with a cease and desist and know they can force you to stop making money off of new stories featuring Dan Garret that you will need to go through legal battles until you are out of money (they assume you won't last as long as their coorperate lawyers will). You might win... but you'll have spent a huge amount of money to do so. On the flip side, D.C. owns the rights to the characters associate with Captain Marvel (after acquiring them from original publisher, Fawcett Comics) but they cannot print a comic with the title "Captain Marvel" because while DC's character was out of print, Marvel Comics created their own "Captain Marvel" and secured the rights to the unused comic title. Thus, DC has the original characters, but cannot produce a comic with the character's name because they did not for a long time and the magazine title fell out of use, which Marvel snatched up and told a story that was totally different.

  5. No. Again, just because there is a specific title featuring them out of copyright does not mean all titles are... and in the case of those characters, they are still marketed and controlled by their parent companies. They have an interest in protecting their copyrighted materials that vastly outweighs your interest in using them based on one or two titles that were forgotten. And media companies are very aggressive in protecting their rights... even if they don't have a legal claim, they will still make you wish you had not tried so.

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    The fact that a subsequent publication includes a given character doesn't extend the copyright protection on that character from an earlier publication. – phoog Apr 9 '18 at 16:41
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    The character itself can't really be protected by copyright anyway. Drawings of it can...comics featuring it can...not the character itself. It can, however, be under trademark protection. – cHao Apr 9 '18 at 20:30
  • @phoog: True, but the given amount of works before and after the one may have lent characterisitics to the character. The OP certainly could not use Bugs Bunny's catchphrase "What's Up, Doc?" because that's from a copyrighted source, for example. Only traits unique to that one cartoon are allowable, and it would be hard to find any that exist in such a manner. – hszmv Apr 10 '18 at 14:33

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