Friday, January 20, 2006

Peter Pan: prequels, sequels, copyright, and confusion

The Independent has a modest article about the complications surrounding copyright in J.M. Barrie's famous children's book, Peter Pan. (Link from

Complications arise from the fact that, in his will, Barrie left the copyright of Peter Pan to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children, in London, intending that the Hospital should benefit from the considerable income generated by that famous (if bizarre) work. And the complications which ensue from that simple gesture of goodwill have been touched upon here several times before, for instance on 12 April 2005.

The situation today is that a book was published in the US, in 2004 according to, which was a prequel to Peter Pan and has sold more than 500,000 copies. Its title is Peter and the Starcatchers. This book, please note, was published by the mighty and ruthless Disney, who in my view are just about the only people who can afford the massive lawyers' fees needed to deal with this issue. Disney have taken the view, based on their interpretation of US copyright law, that they didn't need Ormond Street's permission for their book and that the Hospital isn't entitled to any royalty; so they ain't paying any.

Meanwhile, dear old Ormond Street is planning its own exploitation of the rich Peter Pan seam. A while back they commissioned the award-winning children's author Geraldine McCaughrean, after a worldwide competition, to write a sequel to the Barrie book. The sequel, whose title will be unveiled this week, will be published this year to raise fresh funds for the Hospital. But it will come into competition from the Disney opus. And the Hospital is not pleased.

The result of all this confusion is that the two authors of Peter and the Starcatchers, Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, evidently feel themselves caught in a moral dilemma, and are talking about giving a concert in London to raise funds for the Hospital.

What a mess. But a lovely, lovely earner for the lawyers. They must go down on their knees and bless the worldwide legislators who have created this hodge-podge of jurisdictions which seldom seem to agree on who owns what and for how long.

I must confess to having a personal interest in this matter. About ten years ago, with Ormond Street's knowledge and permission (we struck a deal on royalties), I too wrote a prequel to Peter Pan. It took the form of a stage play entitled Hook in Bath, and it told the story of how James Hook first became a pirate. The only Pan characters used in it were Hook and his mate, Smee. Sadly, however, I have never been able to persuade a producer to put the play on, and therefore income, for both me and the Hospital, stands at zero. However, if there are any producers out there who are looking for a damn good play...

If you want to read an article by someone who has done far more work on this issue than I have, try reading section 8 of the Wikipedia entry on Peter Pan.

If you want to read the Hospital's perspective on the matter, they have a page on their web site.

The moral of all this, imho, is that you shouldn't waste your time trying to write sequels and prequels. If you want to know my reasons in detail, I went on a good deal about the problems which can arise from recycling other people's characters in my piece of 8 July 2005.


Lazygal said...

Don't know if it qualifies as a sequal, but Gail Carson Levine wrote "Fairy Dust and the Quest for the Egg ". There's also J.V. Hart's "Capt. Hook: The Adventures of a Notorious Youth".

Seems to me that it's the hospital that needs deep pockets to defend the copyright, rather than the other way around.

Anonymous said...

So the final verdict is...? The copyright is lifted in the UK in 2007 - for publishing, selling or writing in the UK??? Very confused as to the rights Disney has taken...
By the way what happened to all the other 100 or more writers who presented ideas for the sequel to the hospital. Are they disallowed from publishing their own stories after submission to the hospital? Are they allowed after 2007 to publish thier own ideas???