Disney Works Based On Public Domain

A Crowd-Sourced Project

Derek Khanna


I’m trying to crowd-source a comprehensive list of Disney content based upon works in the public domain (works no longer protected by copyright). Among other reasons, this is important because when talking about long copyright terms policy-makers are often unaware of the “costs” of Congress stifling the public domain through perpetual copyright (or at least extremely long copyright).

Disney is a very clear example, perhaps the quintessential example, of how content creation can benefit from being able to remix and repackage older works that have a timeless value. Yet, Disney lobbyists are among the most involved in pushing for longer and longer copyright terms (effectively infinite copyright terms).

Some people are aware that many of Disney’s most famous movies are based upon the Grimms’ Fairy Tales (in the public domain), but the real story involves much more than just the Grimms’ Fairy Tales. Unfortunately, I have been unable to find a comprehensive list of all their works with the corresponding public domain material to most clearly illustrate this point.

I’m hoping for fact-checking to make sure the list is accurate, what materials I have missed, and I’m looking for a reputable source on the date of each public domain property. I am also interested in having a revenue figure for each Disney work. As listed the revenues are for the box office, but a more precise figure would include all forms of monetization (e.g., tv shows, toys, rides, music and video games). With the success of games like “Kingdom Hearts” and other products, this is a sizable amount of revenue not included here (in fact in many cases it may eclipse the films).

This list shows that the value of the public domain is not just for the Youtube/remix culture of amateurs (as the content industry often claims), but has resulted in enormous revenue for the biggest media icon of our era.

The list:

  1. The Adventures of Huck Finn by Mark Twain (1885)

Revenue = $24.1 million (1993 film)

2. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain (1876)

Revenue = $23.9 million (1995 film Tom and Huck)

3. Aladdin from a folk tale in One Thousand and One Nights (1706)

Revenue = $504 million (1992)

4. Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865)

Revenue = $1.02 billion (2010 version) + $?? original revenue unknown (1951)

5. Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne (1873)

Revenue = $72.2 million (2004 film)

6. Atlantis from the legend of Atlantis (originated as the Socratic Dialogues “Timaeus” & “Critias” by Plato ~360 BC.)

Revenue = $?? million (2001 film)

7. Beauty and the Beast by G-S Barbot de Villeneuve (1755)

Revenue = $425 million (1991)

8. Bug’s Life from Aesop’s Fables

Revenue = $363.4 million (1998)

9. Cinderella from the Charles Perrault folk tale (Grimm’s Fairy Tails) (1697)

Revenue = $85 million (1950) + $542.7 million (live action version in 2015)

10. Chicken Little from the folk tale

Revenue = $314.4 million (2005)

11. Christmas Carol from Charles Dickens (1843)

Revenue = $325.3 million (just 2009 film)

12. Fantasia (1940) scored and based upon Bach, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven & other classical compositions (however, “ The Rite Of Spring” was licensed in original film)

Revenue = $83.3 million (1940) (22nd highest-grossing film of all time as adjusted for inflation) + $90.9 million (1999 — Fantasia 2000)

13. Frozen from Hans Christian Anderson’s Ice Queen (1845)

Revenue = $1.651 billion (2013 film)

14. Hercules from the Greek myth

Revenue = $252.7 million (1997 film only)

15. In Search of the Castaways based on Jules Verne novel (1868)

Revenue = $21.7 million (1962)

16. John Carter based on A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1917)

Revenue = $284 million (2012)

17. The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling (1894 copyright, movie released just one year after copyright expired)

Revenue = $205.8 million (1967 — 30th highest grossing film with inflation) + $43 million (1994 live action version) + 57 million (2015 live action/cgi version)

18. Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)

Revenue = $?? million (1960 film)

19. Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Anderson (1837)

Revenue = $211.3 million (1989)

20. Lt. Robin Crusoe U.S.N. (1966) based on Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (1719)

Revenue = $22.5 million

21. Mulan (1998) from the Chinese Legend of Hua Mulan

Revenue = $304.3 million

22. Oliver & Company based on Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (1839)

Revenue = $74 million (1988)

23. Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie (1904)

Revenue = $109.9 million (2002 sequel Return to Neverland) [When original 1953 film was made it seems like the book was still under copyright.]

24. Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi (1883)

Revenue = $84.3 million (1940 — 39th highest grossing box office gross as adjusted for inflation)

25. Pocahontas from the life and legend of Pocahontas

Revenue = $346 million (1995)

26. Princess and the Frog from the Brothers Grimm folk tale The Frog Prince

Revenue = $267 million (2009)

27. Return to Oz from L. Frank Baum’s books

Revenue = $?? [1985 -When original Oz film made it was under copyright. Disney seems to have purchased rights to all the books. But when Return to Oz was made it had entered the public domain.]

28. Rob Roy the Highland Rogue based on the Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott (1817)

Revenue = $?? (1953)

29. Robin Hood from the English folk tales

Revenue = $87 million (1973 film)

30. Sorcerer’s Apprentice from the poem by Johann Goethe (1797)

Revenue = $236.9 million (2010 film)

31. Snow White from the Brothers Grimm folk tale (1857)

Revenue = $416 million (1937) (10th highest grossing film as adjusted for inflation)

32. Sleeping Beauty from the Charles Perrault folk tale (1697) (also with music/characters from Tchaikovsky’s 1890 ballet)

Revenue = $51.6 million (1959) (31st highest grossing film as adjusted for inflation) + $758 million (2014 live action film “Maleficent”)

33. Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss (1812)

Revenue = $40 million (1960) (83d highest grossing film as adjusted)

34. Tangled from the Brothers’ Grimm fairy tale Rapunzel (1812)

Revenue = $591.8 million (2010)

35. Tarzan from Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1914)

Revenue = $448.2 million (1999)

36. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad based on the Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving (1820) and Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (1908)

Revenue = $?? (1949)

37. The Hunchback of Notre Dame from Victor Hugo’s Book (1831)

Revenue = $325.4 million (1996)

38. The Lion King from Hamlet (1603) and a 1960s Japanese animated series called “Kimba the White Lion”

Revenue = $987.5 million (1994)

39. Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas (1844)

Revenue = $53.9 million (just 1993 film)

40. The Reluctant Dragon based on the story by Kenneth Grahame (1898).

Revenue = $?? (1941 )

41. The Sword in the Stone from the Arthurian Legends

Revenue = $22.2 million (just 1963 film)

42. Treasure Island and Treasure Planet based upon by Robert Louis Stevenson (1883)

Revenue = $109.6 million (Treasure Planet) + $34.4 million (1996 Muppet Treasure Island) + $?? (1950 Treasure Island)

43. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne (1870)

Revenue = $28.2 million (just 1954 film)

44. White Fang by Jack London (1906)

Revenue = $34.8 million (just 1991 film) + $8.8 million (1994 sequel)

Importantly, I should note that these numbers reflect the box office numbers and disc sales numbers where available. They therefore don’t reflect streaming licensing deals, which may be quite lucrative, spin-off TV shows, and most importantly merchandising. Merchandising is a very big one, in the case of Frozen for example Disney has made many $100 millions off of the film. In FY 2014 for example, Disney’s licensing division leapt 12% to $2.54 billion driven by performance of merchandise based on Frozen in particular (as well as Disney channel and Spider-Man).

(If you have more to add, comment here on Medium, or tweet to me at @DerekKhanna and I’ll add).

Under current policy, there will never be another Disney Corporation that was able to create derivative characters and stories based upon content whose copyright has expired (at least not from relatively recent works). In fact, not only are the characters and stories based on the public domain, but even much of the music used (see Fantasia using classical composers Bach and Beethoven). Further, the original Mickey Mouse short film, “Steamboat Willie,” the one that introduced the world to Mickey, was itself a parody of a film from Buster Keaton’s “Steamboat Bill Jr.” A parody is a form of fair use that builds upon the works of others.

While Disney took and reused from the public domain, none of the works created by Disney, including derivative works based upon public domain works, have entered the public domain for others to build upon. And if current policy is extended — they never will.

MPAA/RIAA/Disney lobby Congress and inform the public that copyright should last forever because it’s their “property” and that it’s never ok to use or build upon their property without paying. Under the content industry’s vernacular, if taking and remixing other people’s work without paying for it is always stealing then the Disney Corporation is responsible for one of the greatest thefts in world history.

Derek Khanna was listed in the Forbes 30 Under 30 for Law and Policy for 2014. He is a Yale Law Fellow, columnist and policy expert. He wrote the House Republican Study Committee Memo on reforming copyright law and spearheaded the campaign on cellphone unlocking. Follow him on Twitter.



Derek Khanna

Yale Law Fellow, Columnist & Policy Expert. Ex-McKinsey, ex- Hill Staffer, Serial Entrepeneur @DerekKhanna