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What is the “Public Domain,” and how do I get there?

Writers are always trying to crack that next great story – trying to invent a cast of compelling characters, set in a compelling world, propelled through a dynamic plot that’s sure to engage the reader – be it a movie-exec, script reader, or the book screener for Oprah.

That’s a lot of moving parts to invent, fit together and put into motion. And only after all the complicated machinery has been invented and assembled will the writer have a clear idea whether it works.

If only there was a magical place – a “domain” if you will, where brilliant characters and stories lived; characters and stories that had stood the test of time and been proved throughout the ages!

And if only you could make them your own! (insert sinister laugh here).

Well, there is – and you can.

When a story or novel loses its copyright protection – usually through the passage of time, it becomes part of the “public domain,” a work that can be reprinted by anyone, sold by anyone, and used or adapted by anyone.

As noted by the U.S. Copyright Office: “A work of authorship is in the “public domain” if it is no longer under copyright protection or if it failed to meet the requirements for copyright protection. Works in the public domain may be used freely without the permission of the former copyright owner.”

Remember that copyright protection is a limited duration monopoly granted by the government, during which the author of the work is granted the sole ability to commercially exploit the work – sell it, option it to others, show or perform it, etc. After enough time has passed, the copyright protection expires, after which essentially anyone can commercially exploit the work, and in countless different ways.

Depending on when and where the work was published and/or registered, or IF it was published or registered, the copyright protection may last for different periods.  For example, the life of the author plus 70 years.  Or 120 years from the date of creation of works made for hire – like a cartoon of a mouse with a particularly high pitched voice.

A useful guide to determining whether the copyright term for a work has expired has been posted by Peter B. Hirtle, at http://www.copyright.cornell.edu/resources/publicdomain.cfm (referenced here under a Creative Common’s license – but that’s a whole other topic)(no guarantee as to the accuracy of the info, but it illustrates that determining whether a work is in the public domain can be tricky).

To further complicate the matter, a derivative work – a new work “derived” from a public domain work, may be protected by a new copyright term.  So while “The Iliad” may have long passed into the public domain, a new, modern translation of the work, or a modern adaptation of the work into a new novel, script, interpretative dance, etc., may not be – in fact, probably is not – in the public domain.

While many writers may recoil at the thought of working off of someone else’s story, much less some old story from antiquity, some entertaining (and profitable) modern works have been adapted from crusty old “public domain” classics.

Shakespere’s “The Taming of the Shrew” became the 1999 film “10 Things I Hate About You.” Jane Austen’s 1815 novel “Emma,” became the 1995 film “Clueless.” One – or some of the 1812 fairy tales by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, the Brothers Grimm, were woven into a whole new tale, the 2005 film “The Brothers Grimm” (what a catchy title).

Once upon a time – that being now – many public domain stories could be found at such websites as: http://www.gutenberg.org ; http://www.authorama.com/ ; and http://www.literature.org/ .

But anyone about to use or adapt a work that is presumed to be in the public domain should CAREFULLY research whether that work is, in fact, in the public domain BEFORE beginning the toil of the adaptation.

It could be an Homeric tragedy to spend hours and weeks and months adapting a work – perhaps brilliantly, only to learn AFTER THE FACT that the copyright is still in effect – and you are therefore prohibited from releasing your new classic.