Commentary: From Roald Dahl to Goosebumps, revisions to children’s classics are really about copyright

These rights aren’t absolute and – most importantly – aren’t forever. Once the copyright term expires, anyone can reproduce, edit and sell new copies of an original book in any medium or format.


Hugh Lofting’s The Story Of Doctor Dolittle (1920), for example, entered the US public domain in the 1990s. Today, both the updated and the original versions (including its racial caricatures and story line about a black prince dreaming of becoming white) are available to purchase.

Dr Seuss’s first children’s book, And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street (1937), will enter the US public domain in 2033. At that time, regardless of Dr Seuss Enterprises’ efforts to retire that book, anyone will be able to reproduce and sell new copies, complete with its original bright yellow-faced “Chinaman who eats with sticks”.

Roald Dahl’s original Charlie and The Chocolate Factory will enter the US public domain in 2060. Children will once more have the opportunity to read about the African “pygmies” that Willy Wonka “discovered” and shipped to work in his factory, “fat” children like Augustus Goop and “ugly” girls who chew gum.

In the meantime, copyright holders can update and revitalise their books to broaden their readerships, protect authors’ legacies and maintain the works’ relevance. In exchange, teachers and guardians can access various versions of classic books and decide for themselves which versions their children should read.

Cathay Smith is a Professor of Law at the University of Montana and Visiting Research Fellow at the Oxford Intellectual Property Research Centre, University of Oxford. This commentary first appeared on The Conversation.

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