The Peter Pan character, as created by Scottish author and playwright J.M. (James Matthew, Jimmy to his pals) Barrie, is the well-known star of the oft-interpreted tale of a boy who wouldn’t grow up. And while age might not mean anything to Peter in his numerous appearances in books, plays and films, it does to the folks who are in charge of copyright law. We all know Peter Pan loves his fairy dust, but we also know that in the real world it sometimes takes cold, hard cash to make the magic happen.

But why all this somber legal-speak mixed in with talk about a children’s fable that became an instant classic when it was first performed onstage in London in 1904 with the title ‘Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up’, then on Broadway the following year? First, some backstory about a calamitous event that helped inspire Barrie to create Peter Pan.

JM Barrie
J.M. Barrie. Photo: Public Domain.

When he was six years old, J.M. Barrie (one of 10 children born to David Barrie and Margaret Ogilvy) had to witness firsthand the pain his mother went through when her pride and joy, son David Jr., sustained a fractured skull and eventually passed away from his injuries. It was the night before his fourteenth birthday, and young David suffered a crack to the head following a fall while skating with an unnamed companion who unintentionally knocked him to the ice.

The original 1904 programme for Peter Pan.
The original 1904 programme for Peter Pan. Courtesy Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity

Approximately a week later on January 28, 1867, David Barrie died at the Bothwell Academy private school, with the attending physician who signed off on the death certificate noting inflammation of the brain had been evident in the days leading up to his passing. Rumours have circulated since then that the anonymous friend responsible for David’s deadly fall on the ice a week earlier may have been his younger brother J.M., although that has never been officially verified.

Regardless, Barrie’s mother was devastated by her favourite son’s passing, and J.M. spent the following years watching his mother attempting to ease the grief and emotional pain of David’s death by saying that her deceased son would remain a young boy forever. It was there the seeds of what would eventually become the Peter Pan story took root.

Paulin Chase as Peter Pan
Pauline Chase, an early Peter Pan. Photo: Courtesy Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity

Skip ahead a handful of decades now, to the year 1929. By this time Barrie was well-known on many social fronts, due in large part to his successes as a playwright-including his story of Peter Pan. Barrie, who had always been an ardent supporter of a children’s care facility in London called the Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH), was asked to be a committee member on a delegation in charge of purchasing land that would be used for a new wing of the hospital. He politely declined, instead gifting a very shocked Ormond Street Hospital board with the copyright to his most financially rewarding character, Peter Pan.

“At the time Barrie gave his copyright to GOSH, the hospital was the most specialized children’s hospital in the country, and it was also entirely dependent on private donations and sponsorships,” says the Great Ormond Street Hospital’s Peter Pan Director, Christine De Poortere. “No one knows exactly why he decided to give Peter Pan to the hospital but he knew the hospital well, having lived nearby when he first came to London and he had made donations previously.”

Great Ormond Street Hospital
A recent photo of the old building at Great Ormond Street Hospital. Photo: John Canon / INSH

And while there’s no official explanation on file for Barrie’s generosity, De Poortere is aware of a speech Barrie gave in 1930 where he was noted as having said,

Peter Pan had at one time been a patient at the hospital and it was he who put me up to the little thing I did for the hospital.”

De Poortere voices a sentiment that is likely shared by many when she adds, “I don’t think there is any particular part of the hospital or speciality that Barrie had any affinity for. He wanted to support and help children, and sick children in particular.”

J.M. Barrie's memorial plaque found in the hospital's chapel.
J.M. Barrie’s memorial plaque found in the hospital’s chapel. Photo: Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity

The gift came with one stipulation from Barrie (who passed away in 1937), and that was the amount of money raised from the royalties of Peter Pan never be made public. But GOSH wants to make something very clear to people who might be under the impression that Peter Pan is a non-stop printing press for money. On their website it states:

Public speculation has been wildly exaggerated and the Peter Pan income is not-and has never been-the main source of charitable income for the hospital (contrary to some internet reports)!

But what GOSH may not reap on the financial side of things they more than make up for with the publicity gained by having the Peter Pan name so ingrained with the hospital’s image.

De Poortere notes, “Barrie and Peter Pan are remembered and celebrated throughout the hospital with a Peter Pan statue at the entrance, a commemorative plaque at the chapel, a Peter Pan Ward, a mural and many other elements.” Tours of the hospital are available to view all the Pan and Barrie-related memorials, or to see firsthand the hospital’s collection of memorabilia.

Peter Pan statue
The Peter Pan and Tinker Bell sculpture that greets visitor’s at the hospital’s entrance. Photo: John Canon / INSH

Since the late 1980s things have become a little more complicated for Peter Pan and his GOSH benefactors when it comes to what they are legally entitled to this day and age. Thanks to the creation of the Copyright Designs & Patents Act (1988) in the United Kingdom, GOSH has a right to royalties in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland for perpetuity, but only for the original play. Sequels, prequels, or spinoffs?

Nope. But with the exception of the United States (where the play’s copyright won’t expire until 2023 thanks to the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act of 1998) and Spain (due in 2017), everywhere else in the world Peter Pan is now officially considered fair game. In other words, public domain. However, De Poortere makes a valid case that the Peter Pan gift stretches beyond the obvious financial impact it has had over the years.

It was always a tradition for the cast of Peter Pan to visit the hospital over the holidays.
It was always a tradition for the cast of Peter Pan to visit the hospital over the holidays. Photo: Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity

“I was very touched a few years ago to be contacted by a 90-year old lady who had been a patient at GOSH in 1929 and was part of the audience when a scene from the (Peter Pan) play was performed at the hospital,” she begins.  “It was of course the year Barrie gifted Peter Pan, and he was also present in the audience so could actually witness the children’s delight.

She had never forgotten her stay at the hospital which had looked after her very well, nor her being present at the performance. She had kept that memory – and the photograph of the performance with her in the audience, on her mantelpiece all her life.”

Whether or not Sonny Bono has swapped out Cher for Tinker Bell as his singing partner in whatever Neverland they find themselves in now is something the rest of us are just going to have to wait to find out…