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?