The Italian Supreme Court rules on the alleged copyright expiration on some Disney works  

With ruling no. 33598/2021 of November 11th 2021, the Italian Supreme Court of Cassation stated that the historical cartoons produced by Disney between 1930 and 1948 (among which there are the famous “Snow white and the seven dwarfs” and “Fantasia”) are still copyright protected. 

On the basis of the decision there is the acknowledgment of the retroactivity of art. 7 of Law no. 52/1996 which extends the duration of the copyright “to 70 years from the death of the last living person among the following: artistic director, screenplay authors, including the author of the dialog, and the author of the music specifically created to be used in the cinematographic or similar work”.

The Supreme Court – overturning the decision taken in 2009 by the Criminal United Sessions and ending a 30-year litigation – considered the above provision retroactive since it is finalized to ensure protection even over works already in the public domain at the moment of its entry into force.

It is important to remember that the proceeding on the duration of the economical exploitation rights of Disney Enterprise Inc., already Walt Disney Company, rises back in 1991 with the seizure from two Italian companies of the videotapes of some Disney Classics which had been produced on the assumption that they contained public domain works. Disney contested such exploitation claiming the ownership of the works’ exclusive rights and opposing the alleged expiration of the duration terms of the copyright.

The Criminal United Sessions of the Italian Supreme Court decided on the dispute, with the above-mentioned ruling no. 49783/2009, stating the inapplicability of the subsequent regulations – which extended the duration of the economical exploitation – to the Disney works, with a consequent acknowledgment of the copyright expiration on such works.

The issue was re-opened in the context of the judgment made in 1993 on the request for damages compensation by the two above-mentioned companies for the – alleged – undue seizure of the videotapes of Disney’s cartoons in public domain. Well, in such circumstance the Italian Supreme Court, sharing the opinion of the Court of Appeal of Milan, clarified that the 2009 decision of the Criminal United Sessions, as an irrevocable criminal ruling pursuant art. 654 c.p.p, has effect of res judicata in the civil court between the same parties only for the material facts which are objects of the criminal litigation and not also in relation to the interpretation of the applicable regulation.

Therefore, considering that the Criminal United Sessions did not rule on the mentioned art. 17 of Law no. 52/1996 – and on the art. 3 of legislative decree n. 154/1997, which modifies art. 32 of the Italian copyright Law – the “permanence of the copyright of Disney in relation to the works published between 1930 and 1948” ensues.