Last night, I watched Finding Neverland, a 2004 film which stars the always amazing Johnny Depp as J.M. Barrie (Anthony Lane did a wonderful review of the film in the New Yorker). The name Neverland raises, of course, inevitable associations with a recent trial in California; Barrie's life (including those issues) is explored in an excellent book by Andrew Birkin, "J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys: The Real Story Behind Peter Pan," reissued in 2003 by Yale University Press. The movie says it was "inspired" by true events, and that seems accurate enough. Kate Winslett plays Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, the boys' (including Peter's mother). I can't say much for her performance: her death is inevitable and we see the inevitable effect of that through Peter. This was quite difficult for me since my mother died young, and unlike the concept of Neverland and Barrie's comments to Peter at the end of the movie that one can connect with a dead parent at will, I, alas, have never been able to. For me, those who die remain forever lost, beyond reach: sought, but never found.
Copyright, however, is another story. Barrie died in 1937, meaning that under the life plus 50 UK copyright law then in existence, his copyright expired in 1987. Barrie had earlier willed his copyright to the Great Ormond Street Hospital. In 1988, the British government included this provision in Section 301 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act (The Great Ormond Street Hospital discusses this amendment and has information on licensing on its website.):
"The provisions of Schedule 6 have effect on conferring on trustees for the benefit of the Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street, London, a right to royalty in respect of the public performance, commercial publication, broadcasting or inclusion in a cable programme service of the play 'Peter Pan' by Sir James Matthew Barrie, or of any adaptation of that work, notwithstanding that copyright in the work expired on 31 December 1987."
Note the provision does not resurrect the copyright; it only provides a right to royalties, and then only with respect to the play. Material, including characters, that predated the play, are not covered. The situation in that respect is messy, as is the status of copyright itself. The United States is not obligated to enforce Section 301 of the UK law, and the term of protection accorded to Barrie's works in the United States is that found in US, not UK law. Wikipedia has a brief but useful discussion (and links) about the copyright issues, which include disputes over sequels. A more extensive discussion with links is at Furd Log.
Barrie was a deeply flawed man, and the efforts to create perpetual rights to royalties is also flawed. But Barrie did manage to create a work that inspired many (although I do not count myself as one of them). Genuine empathy and imagination are rare and should be treasured. NPR's segment today of "This I Believe" on the Morning Edition was by Iranian writer Azar Nafisi, who was fired from her university position in Teheran for refusing to wear a veil. The beginning of her segment raises the same point:
"I believe in empathy. I believe in the kind of empathy that is created through imagination and through intimate, personal relationships. I am a writer and a teacher, so much of my time is spent interpreting stories and connecting to other individuals. It is the urge to know more about ourselves and others that creates empathy. Through imagination and our desire for rapport, we transcend our limitations, freshen our eyes, and are able to look at ourselves and the world through a new and alternative lens."