God bless the public domain, the purposefully complicated series of rules that allows Disney to control Mickey Mouse forever but allows us to combine the first page of The Great Gatsby combined with an early scene from Deadpool. Just today, the public domain has granted us a cool new Dracula movie from Chloé Zhao and two competing projects based on the old pulp hero Buck Rogers—though, like a lot of public domain nonsense, there are some complications with those. This comes from The Hollywood Reporter, which says that production company Skydance has announced that it’s working with the estate of Buck Rogers creator Philip Francis Nowlan to develop some kind of new thing with the time-displaced adventurer, but it doesn’t sound like there are any firmer plans in place (including, you know, writers and stuff).
Essentially, Skydance has gone ahead and gotten approval to do something with Buck Rogers (introduced in 1928 as Anthony Rogers, an investigator working in a coal mine who gets frozen in time and wakes up a few centuries later), but it didn’t need to, because the character is in the public domain… or is he? See, the rights to Buck Rogers are a big mess, because the Nowlan family has maintained the it also controls the rights to later stories that introduced more famous aspects of the character (like the nickname “Buck”). The argument, then, is that boring nobody Anthony Rogers is in the public domain, but cool retro sci-fi hero Buck Rogers is not.
It sounds like a shaky position, but it is a position at least, and it’s going to have to be addressed somehow now that Legendary is moving forward with a Buck Rogers thing of its own. By contrast, Legendary’s project has a writer (Brian K. Vaughan) and a star (up-and-comer George Clooney), which seems to imply that it’s a more serious effort than Skydance’s, but only one of these projects has the (potentially unnecessary) approval of the Nowlan estate. THR says the Nowlans have sent Legendary a cease-and-desist letter, so we’ll have to wait and see how this shakes out.