Public domain makes strange bookfellows

Public domain makes strange bookfellows**

Copyright matters.

It affects what you read, and it affects what people write.

We’ve had a lot of discussions (with my readers commenting on my posts, and me responding) in this blog about copyright. I’ve explored the idea of permanent copyright, and have really appreciated the thoughtful and respectful arguments against that idea, and in some cases for even shortening current copyright terms.

In this post, I want to look at an effect of having copyright terms at all…published works which later fall into the public domain, and are then used by other authors in new works.

Under current US copyright law (and as stated in the Constitution), copyright is for a limited time. How long that time is has gotten longer over time since the original fourteen years (renewable once) to the current Life+70 years (in most circumstances).

After that, the work is owned by the public…it is in the public domain. From that point, anybody can publish and sell the book…and authors can use the characters and settings of that book however they want.

This can lead to some great and imaginative combinations…as well as some bizarre and arguably less successful ones.

At it’s best, for me, the new work pays respect to the older work, but brings something fresh and exciting, and often fun.

I also like it when someone brings together two (or more) disparate characters and/or settings.

Before I list a few examples, I want to define it a bit more.

Parody is something different. In the USA (but not everywhere in the world), you can use in-copyright characters without permission, providing that you are doing it as a form of criticism of the original work. Mad magazine, Saturday Night Live, Marlon Wayons, even porn parodies, are legal if they are commenting on the original.

Rightsholders may also do “crossovers”. L. Frank Baum, who to me was pioneering in so many ways, did crossovers…less popular characters from other books/series would appear in the super popular Oz books (arguably, to help boost their profiles…Baum tried to stop writing the Oz books, but those were what the readers wanted). A deal can even be worked out between different rightsholders: in 1976, Superman and Spider-Man “fought” each other in a comic book…despite being owned by two very different and competitive companies (DC and Marvel, respectively).

Fan fiction (“fanfic”) is prose of a different color. 😉 It typically takes in-copyright characters and writes new stories not for profit. It can be a bit of a gray area, but some rightsholders openly support it within certain parameters (J.K. Rowling, for one)

Okay, let’s talk about a few of these works which used public domain elements in new commercial works:

Silverlock (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)
by John Myers Myers
4.2 stars out of 5 | 92 customer reviews

First published in 1949, Silverlock brings together all sorts of characters, both historical figures and fictional. It’s considered somewhat of a classic in its own right. Serious readers can treat it as almost a puzzle, trying to recognize all of the references. 🙂 Everybody can have fun with Robin Hood and Don Quixote, among many others. This one is available through

Kindle Unlimited (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)

or you can purchase it for $2.88 at the time of writing. Note that there is more than one version of Silverlock in the USA Kindle store (but differentiated by additional material, from what I’ve seen).

Sherlock Holmes is one of the most adapted characters of all time, and certainly, the public domain status of most of the original works has made for some odd adventures for Sherlock. I loved

An East Wind Coming (at AmazonSmile*)
by Arthur Byron Cover
4.0 stars | 2 customer reviews

I am very excited to see that this work is not only newly Kindleized (with text-to-speech access) but also part of Kindle Unlimited!

Like Silverlock, it brings together a wide variety of characters…which arguably include (sort of) Sherlock Holmes pursuing a possible Jack the Ripper. This is all complicated by being set in the future where humans can assume the identities (and abilities) of fictional characters…a type of super-powered cosplay. 😉 It comes after Autumn Angels (at AmazonSmile*) (also KU, and been available for more than a year), although that one is a bit different (featuring a character, for example, who is clearly Ham Brooks, one of Doc Savage’s in-copyright associates…without explicitly being Ham). You don’t need to read them in order.

There have been other version of Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper (which makes sense, given their similar timeframes), but I was curious, so I searched for  “Sherlock Holmes in space” and  got

The Adventure of the Skittering Shadow: Sherlock Holmes in Space (Nerio Book 1) (at AmazonSmile*)
by Sam Gamble
5.0 stars | 1 customer review

Several authors (even well-known ones, including Fred Saberhagen and Loren D. Estleman) have pitted the Consulting Detective against the Immortal Count…Dracula.

Dracula is another character whose versions are legion, from more than one comic book superhero version to Blacula in the movies.

The Land of Oz (I mentioned Baum earlier) has seen not only visitors from Baum’s other books (oh, and Santa Claus came to Ozma’s birthday party once…but Baum also wrote a Santa Claus book), but probably hundreds of other interactions since it fell into the public domain.

I thought a particularly interesting take, although unfortunately not available in the Kindle store, was Philip José Farmer’s A Barnstormer in Oz. The original books had Oz interacting with the rest of the world (although in a limited manner…and it becomes concerning enough that they use magic to cut themselves off, which fails at being an absolute separation. This book (as Farmer would do in other works) asked what would happen if Oz actually existed.

There are many other examples. Tarzan is (mostly) in the public domain…and encounters Frankenstein (also in the public domain) in Owen Leonard’s Frankenstein Meets the Ape-Man: Tarzan (at AmazonSmile*)…KU or $0.99. I’ve read Doc Savage in an adventure on King Kong’s Skull Island

Of course, there was

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (at AmazonSmile*) by Seth Grahame Smith ($10.99, not KU)

which has a movie adaptation in the theatres right now (not breaking any box office records, though).

Is all of this an argument in favor of public domain?

I’d say yes.

I recognize the value of PD, both in making books available for free, and in making legal these sorts of innovative storytelling.

I think there is considerable room for improvement in copyright, and am thinking about different possibilities…

What do you think? Do you have a favorite book with public domain characters or settings in a new work you would recommend? What’s the weirdest crossover/mash-up/adaptation you’ve read? I left off so many (I hear some of you shouting out A League of Extraordinary Gentlemen written by Alan Moore)! Feel free to tell me and my readers what you think by commenting on this post.

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* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) 

** This is take on Charles Dudley Warner’s famous line, “Politics makes strange bedfellows”…while Shakespeare used the phrase “…strange bedfellows” in the Tempest

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.


2 Responses to “Public domain makes strange bookfellows”

  1. Edward Boyhan Says:

    If you read some of the background material (there isn’t much) surrounding the addition of intellectual property protection in the constitution, the founders had two things in mind.

    Historically, compensation for creative types had been pretty hit or miss. So in order to promote more creative activities, they added legal mechanisms in the constitution to enable creators to derive compensation for their efforts.

    They also were quite clear that in “payment” for this legal protection being included in the constitution, the creator would cede the creative works to society as a whole after a limited time.

    It was left to congress to determine what that limited time should be.

    I have argued here and elsewhere, that in light of their objective in providing compensation to creative types, that that limited period should be restricted to the creator’s lifetime plus the lifetime of any surviving spouse and minor children.

    I feel strongly that since society has created the legal framework for them to derive compensation, society should own those creative works after the lifetime of those mentioned above.

    I particularly don’t like the idea that the beneficiaries of long copyright terms end up not being individuals, but corporate entities.

    Intellectual property is different it should not be inheritable.

    If you want some property moolah for the ages, use trademarks — as Disney has done quite aggressively for example going after small bakers who make cakes in the shape of Disney characters.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Edward!

      As to “what they were thinking”, you might find this one interesting:

      Click to access Bracha.pdf

      The American version of copyright, as I understand it, was largely “inspired” by England’s Statute of Anne.

      You are right that they do mention taking care of families.

      In terms of it being to protect “creative types”, I believe one of the original motivators was people who (often at considerable expense and risk) created maps of, say, a coastline, by going out and actually mapping it. Those maps were valuable to society…but if just anybody could reproduce them and sell them, that reduced the motivation to have the expedition in the first place.

      I don’t like anything based on the lifetime or the life circumstances of the author, personally. It seems inherently unfair. In the case of lifetime, suppose there are two authors. One of them writes a novel at age 20. The other one writes a novel at age 80. Statistically, which one is the State likely to reward more through copyright protection if it is based on lifetime?

      Similarly, I don’t like it to be based on the lifetime of spouse or children. It’s a bit of social engineering, perhaps, to encourage people to have children. 😉 There are people who, for religious reasons, have neither offspring nor spouses: should they derive less benefit from a copyright than someone who has both?

      I’d rather the Copyright Office not have to pry into my personal affairs. 🙂 Copyright should not be dependent on the individual (outside of jurisdictional issues), but should be the same for everyone…again, in my opinion.

      On society’s ownership, that goes back to whether it is a business license or protection of a “natural right” of the creator of the work. If it’s a business license, the government can set whatever term they want. If it’s a protection of a natural right, terminating that right at some point seems…odd. If may, of course, be a combination of both.

      A lot of people don’t like the idea of a corporation owning “a piece of culture”. However, what happens there is that it is the author or the author’s estate who is compensated (not always fairly, certainly in the past) by the corporation for that right. The question on that one is how much you want the government to control the business transaction.

      Suppose someone paints a painting. They decide to make money on it by charging people a dollar to look at it for five minutes.

      That’s one way to go.

      Alternatively, they license “distribution rights” to an art museum, which charges people at the door.

      How much they get from the art museum, in part, will depend on how long the museum can exhibit it, whether other museums have copies of it, how long the museum thinks it will be popular (and how popular it will be), and so on.

      Should the government say that you can’t do the museum licensing deal?

      Things do get more complicated when you are doing a “lifetime” term in regards to licensing. It’s much simpler if every work has a 100 year copyright (or a ten year or whatever).

      Oh, and that’s one more reason I really prefer definite terms: it makes copyright status so much easier to determine! With a lifetime term, imagine that a recluse author dies at home at some point…how does the average person figure out when that work is in the public domain? The Copyright Office doesn’t have a “death watch”…

      I’ve personally run into some…interesting things with Disney asserting rights (not in my creative life). For example, our kid’s elementary school would show videos children would bring to the school when it was a rainy day. They got a cease and desist letter just from Disney, not from other studios…

      Thanks again for a thoughtful comment!

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