Writing Excuses 17.17: Writing in the Public Domain
Key Points: So, what’s in the public domain that you can use? Make sure what you are using is in the original work, not created by the media. What’s public domain? Anything older than 96 years. You get to use an established universe, and you can bring out lesser-known aspects and characters. Retelling is fine! Remember, writing builds on shared understanding. Twists play off audience expectations.
[Season 17, Episode 17]
[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Writing in the Public Domain.
[Brandon] 15 minutes long.
[Gama] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Brandon] And we’re not that smart.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Gama] And I’m Gama.
[Dan] We are here at LTUE…
[Dan] Very excited to be here, recording live in front of our home court science fiction fantasy conference. We have Gama Martinez with us. Gama, you’ve been a friend of ours forever. We’re so excited to have you on the show. Tell us a little bit about yourself.
[Gama] I am a writer, obviously. A runner, a diver, I dive with sharks all the time…
[Gama] Yeah, I volunteer at the aquarium. I dive with tickling shark tanks.
[Dan] Okay. I thought you just like broke into the aquarium.
[Brandon] This is the Loveland Living Planet Aquarium?
[Brandon] Cool. I didn’t know that that was you.
[Dan] Yeah, I didn’t know… Well, we’re not going to talk about the other thing. We’ll just talk about sharks.
[Dan] No. You pitched this, and I think it’s a fascinating idea. Because the public domain at this point does include a lot of really cool stories, fiction, characters, all of this cultural background that we might be very familiar with that is actually totally legal to just tell your own stories about. You are publishing a book about…
[Gama] It is called God of Neverland. It’s set 20 years after Peter Pan, where Michael Darling asked to return to Neverland to help save Peter Pan.
[Dan] That’s cool.
[Brandon] It’s very cool. I have read it. I got an early copy. It is… You’re even kind of… The worldbuilding’s really cool. Because it’s, like, Peter Pan, you find out very early in the book, is, like, this ancient God, a trickster God, that Peter Pan is just one of his incarnations.
[Brandon] It delves into mythology and things. It’s really cool.
[Gama] So, yeah, in Celtic mythology there is a God called Maponos who is an eternal child, and is a personification of youth. So I’m like, “Oh, that’s perfect.”
[Brandon] Yeah. I thought that connection was just awesome. It propelled me through the whole book, just that single idea, landed so well for me. The book is great, too. It’s not just that idea.
[Dan] So, Peter Pan and Celtic mythology are both public domain.
[Dan] If somebody wants to write with public domain characters, such as Peter Pan, what are some considerations that they need to take?
[Gama] The big thing to be careful of is that what you are using is part of the original work, and not something created by Disney or another movie company. The third book in this series, for instance, is going to be based in Oz. But what a lot of people don’t realize is that the ruby slippers were not in the original book. They were silver. They were put… They were made ruby in the movie because they were just doing color movies and red popped out more. So, I can’t use ruby slippers because that’s not public domain, even though the Wizard of Oz is.
[Brandon] Yeah, it’s really odd was Sherlock Holmes, right? Because the estate of Sherlock Holmes has somewhat successfully proven that certain elements from Sherlock Holmes are not in the public domain, even though early stories of Sherlock Holmes are in the public domain. So, they’ll like sue if the friendship between Sherlock and Watson is as it’s represented later in the books instead of as it is early in the books. Which is really an interesting distinction that is a little intimidating, I think.
[Dan] So, is there an easy way of learning this stuff, or is it just do your research?
[Gama] Anything before 96 years from now is public domain. There’s some gray area between…
[Dan] Before 96 years from now?
[Gama] Well, 96 years…
[Dan] Anything older than 96 years?
[Gama] Yeah, that’s exactly it.
[Dan] Okay. So, for example, what are some Peter Pan things that I’d probably assume are original, but are actually Disney creations?
[Gama] The crocodile’s name is Tick-Tock.
[Gama] That is not in the book. The crocodile is not named in the original. Obviously, a lot of the songs.
[Dan] I assume all of the song.
[Dan] None of them were original in Barrie. What about, like, aspects of the lost boys? They all… Did they all dress up like squirrels and stuff in the original?
[Gama] No, they didn’t. Now that you mention it, no, they didn’t.
[Dan] Oh, okay.
[Gama] They were just boys who had… In the book, they had fallen out of their cribs. The reason they were only boys is that girls were too smart for that.
[Dan] Oh! Okay. As the father of three of each, I agree.
[Dan] That’s absolutely correct.
[Brandon] This topic’s going to grow increasingly relevant in the coming years. Because so far the Sonny Bono act, which extended copyright, has not been re-extended. I don’t know if it’s actually called the Sonny Bono act…
[Brandon] But that act that was… That extended copyright protections in the 90s. Everyone is expecting Disney to fight to re-extend it. So far, they haven’t. They were a big motivator behind it happening in the 90s. So, for instance, Batman and Superman are going to be entering the public domain within the next 10 years or so. If this doesn’t… If something doesn’t happen. Right now, the people who are watching this are saying if Disney’s not going to join this fight, then it’s going to happen. Which means that you will be able to write Superman stories if you want. But this can only be the issues of Superman containing elements from the ones that were the first year that Superman was out, and then, the next year, the next set of issues will enter the public domain and certain other things will enter. So it’s going to get real interesting about 10 years from now when there are unlicensed Batman and Superman movies that start getting released.
[Gama] Right. Originally, Superman couldn’t fly.
[Gama] He could leap tall buildings in a single bound.
[Brandon] Yeah. No, that’s legit. A lot of the villains, the iconic villains, will not enter because originally Superman was not fighting Lex Luther, he was fighting generic 20’s mobsters. So it’s going to be a real interesting thing when that starts happening.
[Dan] Yeah. I can’t recall the specific outlets right now. We’ll try to find this for the liner notes. But there are… I have seen announcements come through almost every year of, “Hey. These are all the things that are going to enter public domain this year.” 96 years ago is not very long ago in terms of our cultural history and our pop culture. I mean, was 96 years ago? 20 something… 20… Bleah, I can’t do math, I’m a writer.
[Brandon] Yeah. It would be the 20s.
[Dan] 28? Yeah, the 1920s. So we’re going to start getting all kinds of… Like, it’s only another decade or so before we get Captain America.
[Brandon] Entering this year is Winnie the Pooh. A. A. Milne.
[Dan] Winnie the Pooh. Everyone get out there. Be first on the Winnie the Pooh train.
[Brandon] That’s the big one. But there is an Agatha Christie novel entering the public domain. There is some Faulkner and some Hemingway entering the public domain. Not as big franchises there as perhaps Winnie the Pooh, but…
[Brandon] But kind of interesting to see these things now that that expansion has run its course.
[Dan] People have been waiting for William Faulkner to enter the public domain…
[Brandon] Yeah, my William Faulkner…
[Dan] With bated breath.
[Brandon] As I Lay Dying cinematic universe…
[Brandon] Is up and ready to go. Just various people in their caskets, monologing about their deaths.
[Dan] Okay. So you were just reading us a list you were scrolling through your phone. Where did you look that up, so our listeners can look it up?
[Brandon] I googled “entering the public domain in 2022” and took the first hit.
[Dan] Oh. Well, there you go. That’s…
[Gama] So that means it’s actually already in it, because all the stuff goes in when the year starts. So Winnie the Pooh is public domain now.
[Dan] Winnie the Pooh is already out. Jump on it.
[Brandon] Don’t quote us on that. Go get a second source, because it was a five second Google for me.
[Brandon] So if you write it and then you get sued because you’re a year early because this list said it will enter next year and I just didn’t read that, you can’t blame me.
[Brandon] Well, you can, but I will dispute that.
[Dan] Yeah. The audio evidence that he has told you this is there.
[Dan] Gama. You’re our book of the week. So, once again, tell us not only about your Peter Pan book, but where people can find it.
[Gama] God of Neverland would be in all book stores. It’s being released by Harper. Like I said, it’s 20 years after the original Peter Pan. The audiobook is by Simon Vance, which I am really excited about.
[Brandon] It… If you’re looking for [tones], again, I read it and really liked it. It has about a mystery thriller feel to it. It’s like lots of interesting sort of detective-ish things. Detective adjacent, would you say, Gama? It’s not really a detective story.
[Gama] Right. Yeah.
[Brandon] But thriller-esque.
[Gama] Yeah, definitely.
[Brandon] Sort of feel. Very fast-paced, very seat of your… On the edge of your seats sort of stuff.
[Dan] Cool. All right. So, let me ask another question then. What is the value of… Maybe this is super obvious. What is the value of using a public domain character or setting rather than just making everything up on your own?
[Gama] You have a whole established universe to play with, and then you can find the lesser-known aspects of the story and bring those out. Unlike writing media tie-ins, you don’t have to get permission for that. So, like I said, you have this really big expanded universe. There is one thing that’s like in the epigraph of Peter Pan, it talks about a little old lady with a crooked nose and a house. She becomes a major character. You can expand on little-known parts of stories that everyone knows about.
[Dan] That’s very cool. This would also, I assume, include retelling, right?
[Gama] Oh, absolutely.
[Dan] That you could do “This is Peter Pan, but it’s cyberpunk in the future, and it’s all gritty, and everyone dies.”
[Brandon] It’s interesting for you to ask this question, because narrative… When we are writing stories, we are always building on a shared understanding. Even if it’s just a shared understanding of story structure and things like this. A lot of what we do as writers to make things feel fresh and original is we are in some ways twisting that structure. We are playing off of audience expectations. You can’t have a twist in a book if the audience isn’t expecting something else to happen. That’s the definition of a twist. Because of that, anytime you have something shared in a narrative with the reader that you can expect they will understand, you can play with it. Gama does an excellent job with this in his book. It’s one of the reasons we like… Like, when someone gives you a pitch, “It’s this, but 20 years later and with this twist,” you’re building on that shared narrative. That is just really fun. That’s the way that we make interesting twists and interesting takes. Like, even when I will pitch Mistborn, I’ll say, “Oh, Mistborn is a cross between My Fair Lady and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”
[Brandon] That’s the pitch I used to give when people knew Crouching Tiger a little bit better, right? Because it was new. It’s a ninja story. My Fair Lady, the ninja story. That works because you know My Fair Lady. You’re like, “Oh. My Fair Lady, but with magical ninjas.” That is just a cool twist. It’s a cool take. It lets you give these really efficient pitches.
[Dan] That’s awesome. Cool. Well, Gama, we have really loved having you on the show.
[Gama] I was glad to be here.
[Dan] We’ve been so organized the last several years that we haven’t had the opportunity to do what I’m about to do. Which is, with no warning whatsoever, say, “Gama, what’s our homework this week?”
[Gama] Your homework is to find something entering the public domain and write a story about it.
[Dan] There we go. This has been Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses, as is Winnie the Pooh. Now go write.