What Will Happen Once Donkey Kong Becomes Public Domain?

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This new year kicked off one of the biggest deals of our era: Steamboat Willie entering the public domain.


This means that people are allowed to freely use the images of the cartoon without Disney's permission. Even better, people are allowed to use Mickey, Minnie, and Pete. Of course, it's only those early versions since Disney still owns their current iteration, and Disney still owns Donald Duck. Still, this is a massive deal because Disney owned Mickey for such a long time. This made me wonder an even bigger question: what would happen if any Super Mario characters ever entered the public domain?

I'm unfamiliar with copyright law, so I don't know what would enter the public domain the earliest. The copyright expires after the author dies and then 70 years afterward. Also, Nintendo is not an American company, so I don't know if copyright protection is stricter or more loose in that case. The thing is, it's hard to determine what the "author" is. So, the earliest works to become public domain are:
  • Donkey Kong (arcade)
  • Donkey Kong (Atari 2600)
  • Donkey Kong (ColecoVision)
  • Donkey Kong (NES)
There are still people alive who have worked on Donkey Kong. I'm ignorant of the Steamboat Willie situation, but we know Walt Disney didn't create that cartoon alone. Whoever owns the copyrights of certain things are the ones who protect it. The earliest Nintendo president of the U.S. is Hiroshi Yamauchi. Does that mean he was the copyright owner of Donkey Kong at the time? Would that make him the "author". The thing is, video games aren't made by machines. I hope to get people in the thread to help me with this.

So, for this case, the day Donkey Kong becomes public domain is likely by January 1, 2127, about 103 years from now. Donkey Kong would be 145 years old by the time it becomes public domain. Though, to be fair, this is based on the game's hypothetical release date, which is disputed. This covers not just the original game but also the flyers the game came with and the programming, the characters, and sound effects. By January 1, 2127, everyone who worked on the original game will be deceased, and it would be a long time for Nintendo to keep using their characters. We don't know if Nintendo will be around this long for them to keep enforcing their characters.

With this in mind, this would happen once Donkey Kong enters the public domain.
  • People will be allowed to use the code and sprites from the game. They can even reupload the game onto the PlayStation and Xbox stores. People can also play the game for free without purchasing anything.
  • Mario, Lady, and Donkey Kong will be freely available for any fiction work. There are some limits, though. Mario must wear red overalls and a blue shirt; it's not that iconic the other way around unless it's fair use. Mario's features must also stray from his current cartoony features. The Popeye-inspired look (which would also land in the public domain by the time DK has) must be the only one they can use. They can also base him off the sprite. Lady cannot be called Pauline, but we can make her wear a red dress. There are some limits on how we can depict Pauline. She must have blonde hair, not brown hair. She could resemble her current design, though it must be based on the original flyer images, not the contemporary Mayor Pauline design. Donkey Kong is the most interesting. He cannot wear his iconic tie, but he can look like that dumb gorilla we all know and love. We may have trouble calling DK a "Kong" because that idea was introduced in the Donkey Kong Country games. He can almost resemble his modern-day appearance since he is just a cartoon ape, but there must be apparent edits to avoid a lawsuit.
  • Artists and producers must avoid confusing people that this is a Nintendo product. The safest thing to do is a disclaimer stating that the product should not be confused with official Nintendo material.
  • The 25m, Hammer, and even the Opening themes (the people who worked on the arcade versions of the game also worked on the NES versions) would be freely usable to remix and use. They might be careful for the Opening theme to not sound like the DKC1 version.

People are already using Mickey Mouse after his copyright has expired, and people are already using Winnie the Pooh. I'm curious about the foresight of any Super Mario game entering the public domain one day. Please let me know if you're a copyright expert.
 
I'm unfamiliar with copyright law, so I don't know what would enter the public domain the earliest. The copyright expires after the author dies and then 70 years afterward. Also, Nintendo is not an American company, so I don't know if copyright protection is stricter or more loose in that case. The thing is, it's hard to determine what the "author" is. So, the earliest works to become public domain are:
Actually, it's death of creator + 70 years OR just 95 years, whichever is shorter. Which is why Steamboat Willie came out in 1928 and became public domain in 2024 even though Walt died more recently (1966 + 70 = 2036)
 
We'll be long long long in the ground
but hopefully our descendants will carry on our legacy
by selling bootleg donkey kong cartridges out of a van
 
I'll be already cremated and dead by the time this finally happens LOL. Rest in peace......also one other thing-a lot of old Nintendo and other games have gotten lost over the years just with how much time has gone by, so maybe by that time all the really old Donkey Kong games will be gone, so there won't BE anything Donkey Kong-related to become public domain. You never know.....
 
I'd like to thank this thread for making me remind myself of my own mortality.
 
If only the Copyright Extension Act has sentience, I'd love to wish death on it.
 
@LeftyGreenMario Copyright law is good in a lot of ways because it makes it so other companies can't steal ideas, characters etc. from the companies we love and drive them out of business so they can continue making more stuff for us to enjoy. However, it can be annoying sometimes, like, for example, when we have a fangame we've made of something we like like Spyro that's really good, but we can't share it with other fans in the community because the characters are copyrighted. Then again when people make free fangames of stuff and people want to play those instead of the paid games by the actual company the company loses money and if that happened enough our favorite companies might go out of business. I don't know; just seems like no matter what we do with copyright law, we would lose somehow. Like, we have copyright law, and our favorite companies' stuff is protected so they can keep giving us great stuff but we can't share our fan creations. If we don't have copyright law, our favorite companies could have assets stolen from them and lose money and go out of business. With no copyright law, we can share our fan stuff, but then again that could cause companies we like to lose money and go out of business THAT way. Oh my God.....thinking about all this is giving me a freaking migraine! Well-to sum it up-Copyright Law is not completely good or completely bad-there's advantages AND disadvantages to it and you can't have one without the other.
 
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Depending on when it becomes public domain I might be alive, but honestly, I don't really mind, because I don't honestly care like a crazy amount about donkey Kong, like he is cool I'm not denying that, it's that I don't really…care
 
Depending on when it becomes public domain I might be alive, but honestly, I don't really mind, because I don't honestly care like a crazy amount about donkey Kong, like he is cool I'm not denying that, it's that I don't really…care
Yeah, I agree-it's not like copyright loss affects whether or not people can play any of the Donkey Kong games.
 
Copyright in theory is good but it's been abused with entities that have money, and y'know, the copyright extension is one abuse of it.

Shit like COPPA/PIPA is what happens when copyright holders have far too much power.
 
@Ray Trace I agree with you. Sometimes companies take copyrights too far, like, for example, saying you can't share an awesome fan drawing of a character you like with anyone because the character is copyrighted, when all you wanted to do was share it for free and weren't going to charge people any money for it. Like, saying other companies can't use it is valid and they have that right and I agree that companies should have that right, but saying people can't even share art of it with each other, even though they're not using it for a television or film production to make money off of stealing the company's work and taking profits away from them, and instead just want to share their passion with other fans. Seriously...that's ridiculous! Oh-and here's another one-not being able to have a copyrighted song or film clip or whatever in a YouTube video because it's copyrighted, even though you're not making any money off of it at all; the only money you make is from your monetization and stuff, not from putting it in there. But companies are paranoid nowadays so they don't like that.
 
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COPPA? The law that prevents websites collecting data from children? I'm not sure what it has to do with copyright—and heck, I'd like more protections against extravagant online data collection for us adults, too. I remember there was a stir when YouTube Kids got in legal trouble and YouTube messily shifted some burdens onto creators, but to my understanding, it wasn't forced to comply in that specific manner… Am I missing something important?

Anyway, I'd love to see what people will make when Donkey Kong enters the public domain.

If I can vent a bit, I feel like many people are reacting oddly to the Steamboat Willie situation. But it is overdue. Disney literally, repeatedly changed the law just to extend the copyright of this 95-year-old film. That this was all for naught is worth celebrating… but it's also worth mourning how, because of Disney's actions, so little of the art that has inspired us will achieve the same freedom within this entire century, will be safe for us to fully embrace our inspiration—unless we make some massive changes. I hope that can happen well before whenever Donkey Kong's copyright is set to expire.

If I can vent a bit more, I've never heard of this Winnie-the-Pooh horror film until the past few days, where it's suddenly all anyone's bringing up—and this will sound blunt, but I struggle to grasp why they care? Remix culture is big online, so i'm sure Pooh horror fanfiction has been around. If you can tell a fanfic is inconsistent with the tone of the original work in a way that's not to your tastes, you simply wouldn't read it. This seems like the same situation, just with higher production values and less legal gray area, and yet the mere existence of this movie seems to unsettle people. But I don't see why we should perpetually limit derivative works to the original copyright holder's brand guidelines. I don't see why it's an indictment of the public domain if a derivative work is bad, when official rightsholders very often put out bad adaptations and reboots too, and when plenty more fans will be eager to create passionate, more faithful works that would never happen otherwise. Does Donkey Kong not deserve that? Nintendo didn't even make him any new games for this console!! I don't know why they even bother to keep spotlighting him in the movie and theme park, when the most that any of that promotes is a port of a decade-old game! They have DK locked in a cage like in Donkey Kong Jr.——

Like, in seriousness, I don't see how any of this could possibly be an argument to keep extending copyright forever, to allow companies to coast indefinitely off of works that are already from bygone millennia—works they aren't even using—works they never created, but bought via merger—works whose creators are long gone—works milked for longer than anyone could remember. When companies become that powerful and entrenched, why does their property require such protection in the first place? Is it just? Does it incentivize innovation and cultural health? Why did we see fit to replace common mythoi with another form of private product to hoard and guard?

…This is all to say that if a horror movie gets made once Donkey Kong goes public domain, I will be interested and inspired to hear that it's happening. I just won't be watching it because I don't like horror. :P I already love seeing the creativity people are putting into Mickey Mouse and I imagine this love will only be amplified with DK, not to mention with Mario, the Mickey of a new medium.
 
COPPA? The law that prevents websites collecting data from children? I'm not sure what it has to do with copyright—and heck, I'd like more protections against extravagant online data collection for us adults, too. I remember there was a stir when YouTube Kids got in legal trouble and YouTube messily shifted some burdens onto creators, but to my understanding, it wasn't forced to comply in that specific manner… Am I missing something important?

I mistaken it with SOPA that's how badly I wanted to forget it was a thing.
 
I'll be honest; Nintendo is really protective of its IPs. If Nintendo is still in business (which it probably will be; it makes a TON of money) by the time Donkey Kong becomes public domain hundreds of years from now, I don't think it will be be in public domain very long before the copyright is renewed again. And even if it is for a while, if they decide they want to make more stuff with it, the copyright will probably be renewed at THAT time instead. Also @AgentMuffin you have a really good point; why renew the copyright for a work even that you created yourself that you're not using at the time, or might not have been using for a long time. Personally I think copyrights should only be renewed once the original company decides they want to use the IP again for something. Sometimes, as with Disney from time to time, companies wait literally several decades before making another sequel/reboot. So in that case, I only see it useful to renew copyright when a company decides to make another thing out of an IP they haven't used for a long time.
 
If I can vent a bit more, I've never heard of this Winnie-the-Pooh horror film until the past few days, where it's suddenly all anyone's bringing up—and this will sound blunt, but I struggle to grasp why they care? Remix culture is big online, so i'm sure Pooh horror fanfiction has been around. If you can tell a fanfic is inconsistent with the tone of the original work in a way that's not to your tastes, you simply wouldn't read it. This seems like the same situation, just with higher production values and less legal gray area, and yet the mere existence of this movie seems to unsettle people. But I don't see why we should perpetually limit derivative works to the original copyright holder's brand guidelines. I don't see why it's an indictment of the public domain if a derivative work is bad, when official rightsholders very often put out bad adaptations and reboots too, and when plenty more fans will be eager to create passionate, more faithful works that would never happen otherwise. Does Donkey Kong not deserve that? Nintendo didn't even make him any new games for this console!! I don't know why they even bother to keep spotlighting him in the movie and theme park, when the most that any of that promotes is a port of a decade-old game! They have DK locked in a cage like in Donkey Kong Jr.——

Like, in seriousness, I don't see how any of this could possibly be an argument to keep extending copyright forever, to allow companies to coast indefinitely off of works that are already from bygone millennia—works they aren't even using—works they never created, but bought via merger—works whose creators are long gone—works milked for longer than anyone could remember. When companies become that powerful and entrenched, why does their property require such protection in the first place? Is it just? Does it incentivize innovation and cultural health? Why did we see fit to replace common mythoi with another form of private product to hoard and guard?
I disagree with the argument, but I can kind of see it. If someone is really attached to a property, especially one from their childhood it can be uncomfortable for them to see it "misused". Something like reimagining Pooh as a slasher villain is totally antithetical to the character and original work.

That being said, it's just how public domain is and it's not really a problem. If you don't like how a property is portrayed in a piece of media... then just don't engage with it? Copyright owners holding a monopoly over the property indefinitely is absolutely not preferable. Heck, there's already plenty of parody content online for non-public domain works that does the same thing, it just gets less attention. And like you said, being under copyright is not at all a protection from bad portrayals...

I'll be honest; Nintendo is really protective of its IPs. If Nintendo is still in business (which it probably will be; it makes a TON of money) by the time Donkey Kong becomes public domain hundreds of years from now, I don't think it will be be in public domain very long before the copyright is renewed again. And even if it is for a while, if they decide they want to make more stuff with it, the copyright will probably be renewed at THAT time instead. Also @AgentMuffin you have a really good point; why renew the copyright for a work even that you created yourself that you're not using at the time, or might not have been using for a long time. Personally I think copyrights should only be renewed once the original company decides they want to use the IP again for something. Sometimes, as with Disney from time to time, companies wait literally several decades before making another sequel/reboot. So in that case, I only see it useful to renew copyright when a company decides to make another thing out of an IP they haven't used for a long time.
That's not really how it works, at least not in the US. Copyright is a fixed term and can't be extended without the government changing copyright law (this has already happened thanks to lobbying by Disney, which is why it's absurdly long now). Also, once something's in public domain, it doesn't come back out. The only way Nintendo could extend their copyright on Donkey Kong is to successfully lobby the government to change the length of a copyright term before the game went public domain.

Where it gets thorny is that new iterations from later works remain under copyright. So once Donkey Kong goes public domain, you can freely use everything as it appears in the game. Things like DK's modern design would still be under copyright until Donkey Kong Country (the first game to use it) becomes public domain, for example.
 
@Waluigi Time What I am wondering though is if copyright on something expires, does that mean the original creators of the work if they are still around can't use it anymore or re-acquire the rights to use it? Like, if Mario becomes public domain, I'd still like it if Nintendo could still use him. I mean, he's their mascot. It wouldn't feel right to me for him to be belonging to somebody else like, for instance, Activision, or Ubisoft, although these feelings are all likely because I'm a Nintendo fanboy who's been a fan of that company since I got a Game Boy Advance for my birthday when I was 10 years old. But still, it's how I personally feel.
 
@Waluigi Time What I am wondering though is if copyright on something expires, does that mean the original creators of the work if they are still around can't use it anymore or re-acquire the rights to use it? Like, if Mario becomes public domain, I'd still like it if Nintendo could still use him. I mean, he's their mascot. It wouldn't feel right to me for him to be belonging to somebody else like, for instance, Activision, or Ubisoft, although these feelings are all likely because I'm a Nintendo fanboy who's been a fan of that company since I got a Game Boy Advance for my birthday when I was 10 years old. But still, it's how I personally feel.
Public domain just means anyone can use that work now, it doesn't prevent the original copyright holder from continuing to use it.
 
Remember when donkey Kong enters public domain in 2076 you cannot put a tie on him
That version of donkey Kong will still bong to Nintendo until like 2088 or something
 
One thing that I don't get is-well-what is the purpose behind allowing a copyright to expire after a long enough period of time has gone by, in this case about 100 years? I don't know, but there must be a specific reason for it. I can't think of that being put in place without there being a specific reason. Could be an anti-trust measure, or something else like that; I expect it's something along those lines, but I seriously don't know. I mean I could always look it up, but I'd expect it's probably very complicated. Legal stuff usually is. So yeah, if anyone by any chance knows why this is I'd be very interested in hearing about it-perhaps simplified a bit if it's overly complicated.
 
One thing that I don't get is-well-what is the purpose behind allowing a copyright to expire after a long enough period of time has gone by, in this case about 100 years? I don't know, but there must be a specific reason for it. I can't think of that being put in place without there being a specific reason. Could be an anti-trust measure, or something else like that; I expect it's something along those lines, but I seriously don't know. I mean I could always look it up, but I'd expect it's probably very complicated. Legal stuff usually is. So yeah, if anyone by any chance knows why this is I'd be very interested in hearing about it-perhaps simplified a bit if it's overly complicated.
Basically, copyright is meant to incentivize the production of creative works by temporarily allowing the creator to be the only one who can profit from it. (When it was first instituted in the US, the maximum was two terms of 14 years that had to be specifically applied for.) The idea of the public domain is that once the copyright expires, anyone is now free to build on and further develop that work, promoting further creations. Notably, the language of the US Constitution that authorized copyright also specifically mentioned the progress of science and inventions (the patent system) which served more of a practical purpose.
 
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