During a time when Disney’s copyright protection over some
of their most classic works is either nearing an end or has already
ended in certain countries like Canada, it may seem oddly
coincidental that Disney has begun to create live action remakes of
many of their most iconic films.
A simple answer to the question of whether these live action
remakes extend the copyright of Disney’s original animated
movies is that, absent true changes to current Canadian copyright
laws, such as those that were recently passed under the
Canada-United States-Mexico Agreement (CUSMA), copyright cannot be
extended. However, a fuller answer is a little more complicated.
The effect of Disney creating new versions of old designs, or
adapting storylines based on their older material, is that newer
versions of characters or altered plots created by Disney attract
their own brand new copyright protection that will continue once
the copyright protection over the animated originals has expired.
Continue reading to learn more about how Disney can benefit from
Canadian copyright law through their live action remakes, even when
their copyright over their original movies and designs end.
CUSMA and the Extension of Copyright
The term of copyright in Canada has recently been extended to
the life of the author plus 70 years as part of the implementation
of CUSMA, which means that a work ceases to be protected by
copyright at the end of the 70th year following the
author’s death, even if the author is no longer the owner of
the copyright. The necessary amendments, which can be found in Bill C-19, the Budget Implementation Act, 2022, No.
1, have received royal assent and are awaiting an Order in
Council. These changes will soon be reflected in the Copyright Act. Such an amendment to
the Act is the only way in which copyright can be extended.
Individuals who own the rights to trademarks can extend the
protections over their creations by renewing them after the
protections expire, but once copyright protection of a work
expires, that work becomes a part of the “public domain”
and may be used by anyone according to copyright law.
CUSMA’s term extension is not retroactive, which means that
the works whose copyright expired before the implementation of the
new term extension will remain part of the public domain, including
some of Disney’s older creations. However, works that would
have expired in the next few years under the previous Canadian
copyright term will now enjoy an additional 20 years of protection.
Despite this extension, regardless of what companies like Disney
want, those works that would have expired in the next few years
will eventually become part of the public domain, unless further
amendments are made to Canada’s copyright laws.
Copyright Benefits of Disney Remakes
So, if the only way to actually extend copyright in Canada is to
change the law, is it beneficial in any way from a Canadian
copyright standpoint for Disney to be remaking their original
The answer is yes, there are some benefits.
Disney’s live action remakes are not technically extending
their copyright over their animated films, but they are providing
Disney with new copyrightable material that may eventually replace
their old works in the public consciousness, especially for younger
generations who will have watched the live action versions in the
theatres and may not be as familiar with the animated versions. By
the time that many of the animated characters and designs become
part of the public domain in Canada, especially after the lengthy
CUSMA term extension, it is possible that the newer versions will
be the most recognizable and popular.
New storylines that were not present in the original animated
movies and significant enough changes to the iconic characters and
designs through the live action movies will attract their own
copyright protections that will continue until 70 years after the
death of the last surviving author of the new work. Individuals
seeking to use the publicly available elements of the original
Disney movies will have to be cautious not to use any of these new
copyright protected parts of the live action versions.
In fact, the use of elements of animated Disney movies that are
different from, but still somewhat resemble, newly copyrighted
parts of the live action films could prove to be a challenge. Such
usage could lead to a scenario where Disney could claim that the
use is clearly imitating, and therefore infringing the copyright
of, the newer movie rather than imitating the publicly available
original movie. Such claims may not necessarily prove to be valid,
but the possibility of incurring a lawsuit against a juggernaut
like Disney may not be something the average person would want to
However, despite this challenge, if an individual seeking to use
Disney’s publicly available works is careful not to use any
parts or designs that appeared solely in the live action remakes of
said works, the fact remains that Disney would not have the power
to use Canadian copyright law to stop them from making use of what
exists in the public domain.
The Additional Trademark Issues
It is significant to note that, regardless of whether the
copyright protections that Disney has over their movies,
characters, and designs have expired, Disney will continue to have
protection over their works through their registered trademarks. As
previously mentioned, trademarks can be renewed every 10 years in
Canada, so Disney can essentially protect their works indefinitely
through trademark law.
The trademarks that Disney has over their animations can prevent
anyone from using their distinctive designs in a way that would
make the public think that the product or use of the design came
from Disney. The purpose of a trademark is to distinguish a good or
service belonging to the trademark owner from the goods or services
of others. This means that if an individual were to use one of
Disney’s trademarked designs in a way that could create
confusion and cause the public to believe that Disney is associated
with their product, Disney can stop the individual’s use to
protect their brand, even if that design is part of the public
domain for the purposes of copyright.
Ultimately, copyright protections in Canada are incapable of
being extended unless the law itself is changed, so Disney’s
live action remakes are not in any way allowing them to maintain
copyright over their animated works past those animated works’
copyright expiration. However, the live action remakes are allowing
Disney to create new storylines and designs that do attract
separate copyright protections that individuals will have to avoid
infringing when they make use of the animated storylines and
designs that are part of the public domain.
Finally, if an individual is looking to use parts of
Disney’s animated films because they are in the public domain
and therefore not protected by copyright, they will also have to
ensure that they remain well-informed of the trademark legal issues
that could come with such usage.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.