Beat Piracy by Using Work in the Public Domain

Hey, Hollywood does it by the pound – daily. We can too, right?

campbell_ozby Adam Charles Campbell

Hollywood looooves public domain material.

Why else would we have eight different Wizard of Oz sequels, prequels, and reimaginings blowing our way over the next few years?

Oh, sure, Hollywood could come up with new magical lands, original heroes and villains. But would you go to a movie about, say, little Dottie of Missouri, whose RV gets swept away to the land of Ug, where she meets a warmhearted snowman, an idiot robot, and an irritable goldfish?

Actually, I definitely would.

Still, say Oz, mention the yellow brick road and the Emerald City, and all kinds of endorphins start flowing, flooding your system with pleasant, warm waves of comfy coziness.

Name recognition breeds bigger box office. And bigger box office gives Hollywood honchos the comfy cozies. And if that name recognition comes at no cost at all… well, why not dig up another Dracula, Sherlock, or Robin Hood?

So, how can you partake of this creative cornucopia, this plentiful plethora of public domain goodness?

First, a little about copyright.

Copyright law basically says, you made it, you own it.  Of course, as with all things legal, it’s not really that simple.

For one thing, copyright does not protect ideas, just the “tangible expression” of an idea. You say the Wachowskis stole your idea for The Matrix? Tough luck. They made the movie, you didn’t.

Okay, so what’s public domain?

When a work is in the public domain, it simply means it is not protected by copyright law.

Stuff that is (or may be) in the U.S. public domain (unless it isn’t):

  • Published before 1923. Public domain, free and clear. Little Women, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, Treasure Island. Yours for the plundering. This is why F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) costs $12 on Kindle/Nook/iBooks, while his The Beautiful and The Damned (1922) is dirt cheap or free.
  • Published between 1923 and 1977 WITHOUT a copyright notice. Free and clear. This is why our landfills are overflowing with unwatched copies of Night of the Living Dead. Imagine how different our world might have been if someone at Fox had forgotten to slap a copyright notice on the back end of a certain little space movie.
  • Published between 1923 and 1963 WITH a copyright notice – AND somebody forgot (or didn’t care, or couldn’t afford) to renew. That’s a lot of low-hanging fruit from underpaid, overworked pulp writers of the 1930s and 40s.
  • Published between 1978 and March 1, 1989 WITHOUT a copyright notice – AND without subsequent registration within five years. Okay, now we’re splitting legal hairs. You’ll find a bunch of deservedly forgotten Fangoria fodder in this batch.

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