Diving Into Public Domain: The Pool Might Be Deepening

There’s going to be a few steps here because I’m sure people have questions.

What is Public Domain?

These are works that are no longer under copyrights because they have existed for a certain amount of time.  That’s a very basic way of explaining it.  I’ve found exceptions, but this is the general idea. Anyone can use these ideas as long as they take their own twist, which should be obvious.  I won’t go into the gritty details here.  The point is that works in the public domain are open to everyone and more works enter this field as time passes . . . At least they’re supposed to.

Why the Opening Shot at Disney?

I stumbled onto this when I was researching public domain for an idea that incorporated as many pre-existing characters as I could find.  The idea was junked because ‘Once Upon a Time’ and ‘Fables’ entered my radar.  Still, I was looking at lists of available characters and places only to find out about Disney being it’s usual greedy, evil self.  Sorry, people, but they are.

Originally, a person would have an idea for 28 years after publication and then they can renew for another 28 to give the creator 56 years.  Then, it enters public domain.  Steamboat Willie aka Mickey Mouse was going to enter public domain in 1984, so Disney set about lobbying Congress to extend the copyright years.  It worked and it went from 56 to 75 years, but not only for Mickey Mouse.  This meant for EVERYTHING!  Now, Mickey was set to enter public domain in 2003 and would be followed by Pluto (2005), Goofy (2007), and Donald Duck (2009). . . You will notice that they’re still owned entirely by Disney, so you can guess what happened.  Disney lobbied and upped the number again to 95 years.  Mickey’s number is up in 2023 and we haven’t seen any movement to save him yet.  More details can be found here.  My personal theory is that Disney no longer cares since it owns Marvel, Star Wars, Muppets, Simpsons, Aliens, Avatar, Die Hard, Fraggle Rock, Home Alone, Planet of the Apes, Pixar, and the first born child of anyone who has seen ‘Endgame’ more than twice in the theater.

Now, some people might be saying that it makes sense since they were simply defending their property.  Here’s a scenario though.  Say you’re in a crowded theater and a fire breaks out.  You want to save your child, which is natural.  Instead of trying to find a way to do it without hurting others, you pick your child up and rush out.  People are knocked away and you even kick other kids to the ground in the hopes of distracting their parents.  Once you reach the doors and get out, you close them and lock everyone else inside.  Kind of a rough analogy and it might be more intentional than Disney was.

You see, their desperate efforts to protect Mickey Mouse from being the plaything of artists everywhere prevented EVERYTHING ELSE from hitting public domain.  Not only movies, tv shows, and books too.  Not only music and art.  Scientific papers follow public domain rules, so older findings that current scientists would want to use for their experiments were blocked.  They don’t always have the money and would need to either find another way or hope that the copyright owners of the needed papers were willing to be generous.  Imagine the scientific delays that we’ve had because one company was terrified about losing the copyrights to a shirtless mouse.

FYI- January 2019 is the first time in 20 years that published works moved from copyright to public domain.

Anyway, that’s enough about Disney. I know I’ll ruffle feathers by criticizing them.  Let’s move on.

Should People use Public Domain?

I ask this because you see people complain about these characters and stories being used time and again.  How many Robin Hoods, Snow Whites, Sherlock Holmes, etc. can we see before we get bored?  The funny thing is that you see complaints until it’s done in a way that gets praise.  Taking ‘Sherlock Holmes’, I’ve seen tons of versions and many get eye-rolls.  Yet, the Robert Downy Jr. movies were beloved and the BBC series is iconic because they brought something new to the characters.  The former had him edgier than previous movie/show versions while the latter had him in modern times and socially problematic.  I think the versions of Watson helped here too.  My point is that they succeeded because they took a public domain idea and made it fresh.

In comparison, think about all the failed attempts at Peter Pan.  They’re always doing the same thing at the core and there’s never much of a variation.  So, it does feel like the same story always being told.  That’s the reason why public domain should still be used and not attacked immediately.  You never know when someone will take an old idea and doing something amazing with it.  Heck, Disney’s entire business plan is about taking pre-existing ideas and remaking them . . . That might be the last shot at them here.  I make no promises.

That’s only my warning to audiences.  For authors, I say go for it if you think you can do a fun twist to an old story.  The idea I talked about was called ‘The Fable King’ and it was about a person from Earth getting chosen to rule over a world of public domain characters.  He had to fix it because our world had created too many versions, so things had become chaotic.  I think I had Dr. Doolittle and Jane Eyre as his advisers.  I went everywhere with this idea and it really stuck out as something I could get to work, but I lost interest.  This will bring me to my finally question/entry:

What is the Most Important Thing About Using Public Domain?

This is a personal opinion, but I stand by it.  RESEARCH!  Make sure what you’re going to use is definitely public domain.  You might see a story or character being used a lot, but that doesn’t mean those people didn’t pay to do it.  Make sure you aren’t stepping into a legal issue.  I believe it was either Tarzan or Conan the Barbarian that I discovered wasn’t public domain for some reason when I was working on my old idea.  You also need to make sure that the twist you’re using hasn’t already been done.  While this might not get you sued, it can lead to you being called a plagiarist and losing whatever career you’ve established as an author.  Accidents do happen, but nobody will believe it.  Better safe than sorry and find a way to date your initial creation to protect yourself.  It’s weird that people battle over these public ideas, but they do.  The battling has gotten even worse since it’s been the same ideas being used with nothing new for retellers and revampers to sink their teeth into.  At least that dark period is over . . . Until anything from Marvel is about to come up and Disney shrieks like the first girl killed in a ‘Friday the 13th’ movie.  Do they own that franchise yet?

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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35 Responses to Diving Into Public Domain: The Pool Might Be Deepening

  1. Interesting post. I’m in favor of copyright extensions. I think art is so easy to pirate that I welcome all the protections available. In your example of science, yes papers could be copyrighted but are usually available for reading but not plagiarising. Patents in science generally block the use of scientific discovery. Good points on being careful using things that may not be in the public domain.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s the thing with science. You can read it, but you can’t use it to build on. Say someone does research on cancer and you see a way to use it to help your own idea. You can’t do it because it’s copywritten.

      As far as fiction goes, pirating happens anyway and this isn’t about that. We’re talking other authors taking an idea and making it a variation. At some point the art needs to evolve. Without public domain, fairy tails, folklore, and much older works cannot be touched. They can also be used to block anything that looks like them. Imagine if Sherlock Holmes was still under copywrite and the owner used it to stop all genius detective stories. They could do that.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I’m working on a series called ‘Bad Boy Wizard’, and at one point I was thinking of sending my MC to the Hogwash Reformatory for Delinquent Wizards – until people told me I could end up being sued by J K Rowling, even though I wouldn’t be using the exact name of her wizarding school.. Apparently she sued a fanfic author for something similar. You wouldn’t think someone that rich and successful would be so petty. Anyway, my MC will not now be attending the Hogwash Reformatory – best to be on the safe side! I just hope I don’t get sued for mentioning it here. Twice.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. L. Marie says:

    A really thought-provoking post. I didn’t know all of this about Disney. But having worked for publishers and book packagers, I have run across books thought to be in the public domain that weren’t. So, glad for the warning here.

    Lately I have seen a ton of books with Sherlock Holmes or Sherlock Holmes like characters. I’ve also seen the Jane Austen knockoffs, books about Tigerlily and Captain Hook, and a slew of fairy tale books.

    C. S. Lewis’s foundation and publisher keep C. S. Lewis’s copyrighted material up to date. I worked for a company that wanted to use some of his material and was informed that we couldn’t use that much of it.


    • Yeah. Disney has done a lot in this arena. Poster company for greed and pettiness. I remember reading about them threatening to sue a nursery that painted pictures of Winnie the Pooh or something on the walls. The had to redo it even though the toddlers loved it. There was the Spider-Man grave marker debacle too. All would have changed if the characters were public domain.

      The fantasy author estates seem to maintain their copywrites really well. Not sure if there’s a limited amount of time that they can do it.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I understand the lengthy time period. We create something that takes off, we’d like our heirs to benefit from it, too. There is a certain amount of parody allowed, and titles of work aren’t protected. Occasionally, a license can be purchased, which I did once for some song lyrics. There is also a way to keep the copyright by producing fresh content. Wonder why Disney didn’t just make a new MM cartoon and claim that.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m with you, Charles. The whole thing has greed written all over it.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks. I’m seeing a good mix of opinions. I can see why artists want protection, but I do think there comes a time when you need to open the doors a bit. I think the current timespan works pretty well since the initial creators won’t be alive when the time comes.

      Liked by 1 person

      • 95 years?! That’s just plain ridiculous… And it’s not like people will stop buying your stuff just because someone made some derivative work. Personally, I’d like it far less than that, especially for science papers. Maybe a distinction can be made between the two?

        Liked by 1 person

      • I definitely agree about the scientific papers getting a smaller number. With the 95 years, only rationals I have is that it allows the original creator to finish building and adding everything they want. This includes a few postmortem works. After the works is set and locked in as their own, it can be easier for people to use it and there not being confusion between the original and new. Still, 95 is what we have and I don’t think it can go down without trouble.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Reblogged this on Nicholas C. Rossis and commented:
    Some great thoughts on copyright and public domain (and company greed) from Charles.


  7. wilfredbooks says:

    Interesting post, Charles, and I also didn’t know about the Disney business. I’m not in favour of copyright extensions: it encourages greed, no question, and greed has been a pervasive mindset for far too long. Cheers, Jon.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
    Check out this post from Charles Yallowitz on the topic of Diving Into Public Domain: The Pool Might Be Deepening


  9. Just because Disney does a version of a folk tale, doesn’t mean no one else can. The only thing they can trademark is THEIR version.

    I mean, they did a Robin Hood in the ’70s, but since then we’ve had at least three major motion pictures about Robin Hood, and a couple of TV series. Disney did The Sword in the Stone in the ’60s, but since then Marian Zimmer Bradley did The Mists of Avalon and it was a huge best seller. They had Merlin on TV as well.

    Anybody could do stories with Snow White, just not with those exact seven dwarves. Anybody could do Mu Lan, just without a snarky dragon sidekick. Disney might want us all to believe they own the world’s folklore, but they don’t.


    • That’s typically how it works, but they go after anything that’s remotely similar at times. Your examples are all public domain, but those versions cover a lot of ground. Yet, Disney really only cares if it’s one of their popular ones. So, you still need to be careful.


  10. Pingback: Five Links 11/16/19 Traci Kenworth – Where Genres Collide Traci Kenworth YA Author & Book Blogger

  11. usfman says:

    With the spread of the Internet, public domain issues are a major challenge for sure. Thanks for the tips.


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