Public domain makes strange bookfellows**
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
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
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
- Doc Savage: Skull Island (The Wild Adventures of Doc Savage) (at AmazonSmile*) $5.99 (not KU) by Will Murray
Of course, there was
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.