Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Power of the Public Domain

Feel free to create a derivative
of the Mona Lisa like 
Marcel Duchamp's 
L.H.O.O.Q. if you haven't
done so already!
What do the following things have in common?
  • Leonardo daVinci's Mona Lisa
  • Frances Hodgson Burnett's novel The Secret Garden
  • Newton's Principia
  • Source material for Relativity Media's current film Mirror Mirror
  • Mahayana sutras from the Tibetan Kanjur
  • The complete works of William Shakespeare
  • Sheet music to Handel's Water Music
In case you haven't figured it out by now, they can all be found in the public domain.

Now, perhaps you're a bit like me, and although you've heard of the public domain, you've never put much thought into what it is or why it exists. The truth is that any writer can benefit from drawing from this vast resource of stories that have delighted audiences and readers for years.

So, what is the public domain? According to the University of California, here is how they describe it:
❝The public domain is generally defined as consisting of works that are either ineligible for copyright protection or with expired copyrights. No permission whatsoever is needed to copy or use public domain works. Public domain works and information represent some of the most critical information that faculty members and students rely upon. Public domain works can serve as the foundation for new creative works and can be quoted extensively. They can also be copied and distributed to classes or digitized and placed on course Web pages without permission or paying royalties.❞
Basically, what it boils down to, is that these are works anyone can use without someone taking you to court and crying foul for copyright infringement. Sounds like a sweet deal, right? But just be careful you're following proper protocol before you go out there and start writing a sequel based off another author's work. There are a few more rules you'll need to know.

The UCCopyright site goes on to say the following:
Frances Hodgson Burnett's
1911 edition cover.
  1. If the work was published in the United States prior to 1923, it is in the public domain. This is why we tend to see so many "sequels" to some of the great 19th century works like Jane Austen's and Jules Verne's.
  2. For works published between 1923 and March 1, 1989, it depends on whether certain statutory formalities were observed, such as providing a notice of copyright on the work or renewing the copyright per statutory deadlines. It goes on to explain three examples of public notices with or without registration and how or if those copyrights were renewed in the proper fashion.
  3. After March 1, 1989, all works (published and unpublished) are protected for 70 years from the date the author dies. For works of corporate authorship (works made for hire), the copyright term is the shorter of 95 years from publication, or 120 years from creation. It's kind of nice to know your work is protected up to 70 years after your death, isn't it? A recent example of a work entering the public domain is Frances Hodgson Burnett's well-loved novel The Secret Garden, which became public domain in 1987. 
When a work enters the public domain, especially if it's a novel, play, or before too much longer screenplays, derivative works increase with adaptations of screenplays or the more recent trend of writing sequels to well-known works. A novel currently hitting the bestseller's lists is P.D. James' Death Comes to Pemberley, which is in essence a sequel to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice -- a novel that was first published in 1813. And if you're an avid Austen fan, then you already know there's a slew of these novels already out there.

P.D. James' Death Comes to Pemberley
One of many "sequels" to Austen's work.
Keep in mind that some works keep a perpetual copyright and never truly enter the public domain. A couple of examples include the crown copyright that is held for the Authorized King James version of the Bible in the UK. Another pertains to The Great Ormond Street Hospital, to whom author J.M. Barrie gave the rights of his book Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up. This book was granted a special copyright exception when the rights expired in the United Kingdom. As long as the hospital is still in existence, then it receives a portion of royalties for each performance held in the UK.

With all the controversy lately surrounding copyrighted material on the internet, the truth of the matter is that many photos and materials are in the public domain. For example, Wikimedia Commons has over 12 million uploaded files that are specifically in the public domain. It is the largest free "images-only" repository on the web. So every time you find a photo on a Wikipedia page, then that image is in the public domain. Of course, if something seems questionable, then do the research required to know if you're using free content or not.

If you've never taken a look at some of the works included in the public domain, but have always had a hankering for rewriting a story your way, then I encourage you to search out what interests you. Disney would never have had such classics as The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast or there wouldn't be a slew of Shakespeare's in the park every summer across America if not for the power of the public domain.

Have you ever worked with anything in the public domain? If there was a classic literary tale you could rewrite what would it be and how would you change it?


  1. This is fascinating, I handn't realize that this use and abuse of Jane Austen texts was linked to public domain.

    So I could use lirics of any song that was written prior to 1924? Cool!

    Thank Heavens for Wikipedia, but is there any similar database carrying visual material that is public domain?

    I have, in the past rewritten two so-called classics, just for the heck of it. In a writing workshop, my students and I rewrote the end of GWTW (which of couse is not PD) and had Rhett and Melanie eloping together!

    But Little Women is PD, and I would love to rewrite it, making Beth a much more important character, and having her marry Laurie and at least have a baby before her death. I also rewrote Stendhal´s The Red and the Black and gave it a happy ending.

    Ohh, and I would love to rewrite Ivanhoe and either have Ivanhoe flee England with Rebecca, or have her fall in love with Sir Brian who redeems himself at the end. Wow, Sister Mary, Mary, your game´s possibilities are endless.

  2. I hadn't thought of the public domain this way, either! How interesting. I'd only thought of it as "books I can get for free." :) I've downloaded to my e-reader every 19th century novel I can think I'd want to read, and my husband has downloaded virtually all the philosophy classics. But what hadn't occurred to me is the possibility of riffing off such classics for my own tale. Mostly when I see classics redone, it's Shakespeare, and it's modernized so the settings and characters names are changed: Hamlet becomes "The Story Of Edgar Sawtelle," and King Lear becomes "A Thousand Acres." I've been thinking of doing that, but now that you mention it, it would be fun to play with some of the 19th-century novels I love, keeping the names and milieus generally.

    Is the idea with public domain that you can write sequels (what happens next) or that you can write the whole thing over again the way you want it? I love Violante's idea of redoing Little Women with Beth as a more developed character. I'd like to redo Wuthering Heights: love the story, do not love how it's semi-epistolary, with the housekeeper telling the story to a lodger.

    Wouldn't it be fun to write Great Expectations from Estella's point of view? I think redoing classics from the female's POV would be fun generally: women obviously got short shrift in so many classic novels, and were plot devices more than characters.

  3. I use Gutenberg a lot. Mainly to sample the writing of older authors. I got a good idea about a different first few paragraphs of my present book, by sampling Dickens. The changes in style, vocabulary and even syntax over the last 200 years are interesting. If you use Gutenberg, I recommend: There is another E address, but it takes longer to get to the direct download page. Regis


    1. No, I've never tried Gutenberg but I have heard a lot about it. I'll tuck it away in my bookmarks and put it to use. Thanks for passing it along, Regis!

  4. Interesting information, Sister Mary.

    It's always fun to rethink the classics or what could happen after our favorite novels are over. I once participated in a blog contest where we had to write a proposal for a sequel to GWTW and I won! The price was a manuscript critique from a professional editor. It was great! But going back to the subject, no wonder fairy tales are redone a thousand times. I just saw the latest (and very PC) rendition of Snow White (Mirror, Mirror).

  5. What really got me interested in the public domain was an article I read about a year ago. In it, they spoke about all the fairytale classics and why there are so many derivatives out there for these tales. Almost any classic fairytale you can think of is in the public domain. And so I did a little digging and found that there are tons of things in the public domain and they're there waiting for anybody to come along and use. As we've heard many times over and over again, "Nothing new ever gets written," because basically it's all been told in some format time and time again. What I find fascinating are some of the stranger rewrites of things, like "Pride, Prejudice, and Zombies." It's amazing what people come up with!

  6. I'm a little embarrassed to say I had never heard of the public domain...until today. That is awesome. Thanks for the heads up!

  7. Mary, this is a great post on public domain. I had always wondered what it meant. I read somewhere that Walt Disney keeps renewing/suing to renew the copyright on Steamboat Willy and because of their efforts, it also renews similar types of copyrights like those surrounding the Lord of the Rings (so that those estates don't ever have to do anything). I think that's kind of funny.

  8. Michael, Very interesting that you mention Steamboat Willie. I checked out the battle over copyright and public domain when it comes to the mouse and if anyone's interested in reading an article on it, check out this link here:

    It seems there's a big brouhaha over imprecise copyright claims when the original Micky Mouse came out in the twenties. I guess what it boils down to is whether proper copyright rules over how he was originally copyrighted were followed and properly filed. As to Disney, the article doesn't believe that if anyone tried to use Mickey's image that Disney wouldn't come out fighting mad. Just goes to show that you have to be careful about your copyright and make sure you're following the exact rules if you don't want someone else capitalizing on your product.

    Thanks for sharing this!


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