Wednesday, February 18, 2015

What Is Public Domain, and What Does It Mean For Your Novel?

Two weeks ago I wrote a post titled Copyright Myths Authors Should Know About, and given how popular that post was I thought I'd follow it up with a piece about public domain. I'll explain what public domain is, how it works, and why that novel you're working on either is or isn't fan fiction, depending on the copyright of the original work.

So let's get started, shall we?

What Is Public Domain?

Public domain is a legal term used to describe a creative work (book, film, song, etc.) whose copyright either expired or never existed in the first place, thus making it something everyone can use. As a quick for instance the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker never had an American copyright, so the novel can be printed and distributed by any company looking to make a profit. If you want to make a movie based only off of Bram Stoker's novel, or write a story using those characters, then you my friend are good to go because there is no copyright for you to infringe on. You can get more about public domain's legal definition here at Wisegeek.

Public domain is what you get when you pull copyright's teeth.

How Do I Know If Something Is Public Domain?

Figuring out whether something is or isn't in the public domain can be difficult. Fortunately there's a handy list at Teaching Copyright which will show you how to identify whether something has lapsed into the public domain. As a general rule of thumb anything that's common knowledge (names, dates, and other facts), titles, common symbols, and everything published in the United States before 1923 are all public domain works. That includes classics like The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Three Musketeers, The Invisible Man, Frankenstein, and thousands of others.

Sounds legit.
Before you decide to just start using a work because it's old though you need to check to be sure it's actually lapsed into the public domain. While you won't catch any flak for writing a high fantasy version of the Iliad, characters like The Shadow might still be owned by someone.

Why Use Public Domain Works?

One of the big questions people have when it comes to public domain works, settings, and characters is why would you use them? After all shouldn't you try to create something truly unique, and stand on your own two feet as an artist?

Clearly this mysterious questioner is unaware of the pull of fan fiction.

'Nuff said.
People like what's familiar, and as evidenced by Hollywood re-imaginings and re-boots are popular as hell. They also have a long and storied tradition, particularly during the pulp fiction era when multiple writers would use ideas and mention items from other stories. This created a weird, shared-author canon that led to creations like the Cthulhu Mythos which was begun by H.P. Lovecraft, but contributed to by his contemporaries in their own stories.

In some cases public domain works allow you to use an established world to tell a new story. Whether it's the deserts of Barsoom or the darkened streets of Arkham, Massachusetts there's a huge amount of world-building done for you. The rules of the cosmos, the politics of the land, even the timeline is set for you. Not only that but there's a built-in fan base. If you say the word "Cthulhu" people will immediately zero in on you and give you a chance to throw out your line. If you tell someone you're writing faithful cases for Holmes and Watson then there is going to be an interest even if you don't have Benedict Cumberbatch signed on with your project.

Public domain worlds and characters are some of the most often told stories we have. While you might not become the next bestseller writing a story about how Frankenstein's monster and Edward Hyde had to team up to fight a legion of resurrected corpses possessed by demons and led by Jack the Ripper I guarantee you that book will turn a few heads. Before you get started though make sure that the characters as well as the work are public domain. Some of Bugs Bunny's earliest appearances are public domain for instance, but Bugs himself is a trademarked character which means that despite a few episodes of his antics being free for all he himself remains off limits.

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