In 2009, Seth Grahame-Smith’s released his mashup novel, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. He transported Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy to a world where zombies devoured proper ladies and gentlemen out for afternoon strolls. The book hit the New York Times Bestseller’s List and was released as a film in 2016. Such reimaginings of literary works in the public domain are increasingly popular.
For instance, why not Romeo and Juliet and Zombies? (Author Claudia Gabel has written a mash-up that recasts Juliet as a vampire.)
Writers should explore the potential of using public domain works for inspiration, characters, story line, and structure. And writers don’t need to limit themselves to mash-ups and horror. When a classic tale is retold, writers connect us to our past. West Side Story remains as tragic as Romeo and Juliet, and A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley is as haunting as King Lear.
The market for remakes seems insatiable. Every year, publishers release dozens of books based on the rocky romance of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy. Disney has made a fortune transforming public domain works into animated films. (Did you know that The Lion King is based on Hamlet?)
On the legal side, however, writers worry about basing their stories on public domain works. Will they own any copyright in their work or will it remain in the public domain?
The answer is a little of both.
What Is in the Public Domain?
The most common reason works end up in the public domain is that the copyright expires. As of today:
—The copyright on works first published in the United States before January 1, 1923, has expired.
—For works published after 1977, the copyright won’t expire until 70 years after the author’s death.
—For works published between 1923 and 1977, the expiration depends on whether a copyright notice was properly placed, whether the copyright was registered, and whether the registration was renewed. You may need a lawyer or professional copyright researcher to sort it out.
—The duration of copyrights for works created in different countries may be different.
Examples of works in the public domain include Shakespeare plays, Greek myths, Grimm’s fairy tales, and novels by Jane Austin, Mark Twain, and Charles Dickens.
How Many Times Can "Romeo and Juliet" Be Retold?
I did a quick search of remakes of Romeo and Juliet and came across dozens of books and films, including Gnomeo and Juliet, an animated film about two garden gnomes who fall in love.
Suppose you transfer the Shakespeare play to deep space. You create new characters, invent clever dialogue, and craft a unique, dystopian world where romantic love has long been forbidden. What would you own?
You would own a copyright interest the characters and dialogue you created, but Shakespeare’s words would remain in the public domain. You would not own a copyright interest in the basic story line or any characters or dialogue from the original. You can’t claim a copyright on Romeo by casting him in a new light. Writers are free to take the original story and characters to another time or universe. And they do.
To be protected by copyright, the added material must have some level of originality. Merely changing English spelling to American spelling does not create a new copyright claim. Digitizing a printed book is not a new copyrightable work.
The Tricks to Using Public Domain Work
Go back to the source. If you are going to base a story on a public domain work, don’t rely on the movie version or another remake, because those are likely to mix new copyright material and public domain material. If you are using a translation, do not use the specific language of the translation (which may be covered by copyright in some countries) and stick to the larger components such as the story line and characters. Similarly, don’t use any illustrations, commentary, and annotations added since 1922; those may also be protected by copyright.
Don’t be fooled by bogus copyright notices. If you pick up a print copy of Pride and Prejudice, you are likely to see a copyright notice in the name of the publisher together with the usual statement “No part of this publication may be reproduced…” Many of these notices are bogus; the publisher cannot claim any copyright on the public domain work. It’s illegal, although no one is enforcing those laws.
Use the proper copyright notice on your own work. Your copyright notice should claim rights only in your new work. There is no required form, but consider something along these lines:
© year and your name. This novel is based on The Iliad, and no copyright is claimed on any material in the public domain.
For inspiration, take a look at these unusual remakes:
—The Meowmorphosis, “One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that he had been changed into an adorable kitten. . . .”
—Hamlet’s soliloquies translated into Klingon, on YouTube.
—Manga Shakespeare, Shakespeare plays and other classics as graphic novels.
On June 8, 2017, I released the second edition of Self-Publisher’s Legal Handbook. This updated edition covers new topics including using pen names and disclaimers and includes an expanded chapter on using real people in your work. Check out the new edition on Amazon.
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