What’s the Deal with Public Domain, Anyway?
By Briana Hansen
There’s some serious lessons behind the old adage “Truth is stranger than fiction.” Sometimes you don’t need to stretch yourself too far to find inspiration for a fascinating new creative project. A quick perusal of the most popular movies and TV shows of the past few years will remind any aspiring writer that there are lots of familiar stories right in front of your eyes that are waiting to be crafted (or re-crafted) into inspiring narratives.
But optioning intellectual property can be complicated and expensive. And even if you’re telling the story of a well-known public figure, there's red tape you always need to be aware of. In fact, any time you’re working on a true story inspired by anything – whether it’s in the public domain or not – it’s vital you talk to a lawyer about the specifics of your story.
Let me be very clear: I am not a lawyer. I am just a writer with a passing understanding of some of the basics behind using life rights as an inspiration and jumping off point for the creation of projects to add value to your writing portfolio.
I’ll say it again because I’m a fan of repetition: Any time you’re working with any story that actually happened in any capacity with real-life people or events or books or stories, always consult a lawyer.
Okay with those disclaimers aside, let’s talk for a minute about the beauty of the public domain.
Technically speaking, the public domain is any content that isn’t protected by copyright law. Assuming a copyright ever existed on that content, it has since lapsed and anyone can theoretically use that content without worrying about infringing on an existing intellectual property copyright or claim.
It’s like those old beautiful estates that have been converted to public museums. There was a time when the public absolutely would not be welcome in that home. But, for whatever reason, that home has since been converted and people are allowed to come visit and bask in the opulence of wealthy people of the past.
Okay so maybe it’s not exactly like that, but you get the idea.
There are a lot of benefits to using content in the public domain that extend beyond not having to worry about copyright infringement (though that is, admittedly, the major benefit). It’s also an excellent place to look for inspiration into the types of lives and stories of people, historical events, and fascinating worlds in the past. Sometimes by simply meandering through public domain content, fictional amalgamations of characters directly inspired by these stories may start to form in your head. Or, you may start to see a totally new, modern, or exciting angle on a time-honored story that it seems like nobody has ever thought of before.
Searching for some of the most popular stories in the public domain, you’ll see a lot of familiar names, characters, and titles. And even though many of these are older and historical, there have been recent modern movies made about many of these stories that are just as relevant today as they were when the original works were created.
So if you’re tired of hearing that “every story has already been told” and “there’s nothing new to write,” remember that you’re the only you who has ever existed with your unique perspective, thoughts, style, and inspiration. Simply by being yourself with your distinct point-of-view in this never-before-experienced time in human history, you can tell original stories...even if they’re inspired by or variations of or even direct adaptations of public domain classics.
Let previously told stories, people’s real-life events, and iconic classics be the inspiration you need whenever you’re feeling creatively stuck. The public domain is a vast and exciting place to let your imagination wander.
But don’t just take my word for it. Try it out yourself.
And then, of course, always, always, always consult a lawyer.