Sunday, January 13

Using Public Domain Characters In Your Stories

Using Public Doman Characters In Your Stories

Ever thought about using a public domain character? You could. Felix the Cat is available, as is Black Beauty, Oliver Twist and Dr. Dolittle (See: Famous Public Domain Characters).

Under US law, anything published before 1923 is not under copyright (see note 1, below). What does this mean for writers?

Public Domain Characters

As Robert Smedley writes in “Elementary, my dear Hamlet!” – Copyright, Public Domain & You the public domain is a writer's "toy box of free to use characters". Specifically:
There’s no catch; the intellectual property rights of characters and their stories have expired and they’re anyones to use and write about. Only occasionally will you find a character who has strings attached, like Winnie the Pooh or Peter Pan, but they’re rare special cases. It’s always best to check, and that can generally be accomplished with a quick Google.

Differences Between Public Domain Works And Public Domain Characters

Someone over at (an excellent site) had this to say:
A distinction should be made between public domain characters and public domain works; Bugs Bunny is a trademarked character and not in public domain, but his earliest individual cartoons are.

It should be noted that, in general, a trademark is forever. As long as the holder of the trademark is creating some kind of "product" (media counts), and that they fulfill certain requirements (protecting the trademark is generally required), they can demand that the courts enforce the trademark. This is another reason why trademarks have become more common.
So hands off The Bugs. And, interestingly, despite Sherlock and Elementary, the great detective, Sherlock Holmes, is not public domain. Robert Smedley writes:
2022 AD, is a year when you’ll likely start to see an increase in the number of new Sherlock Holmes stories published by authors who aren’t Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Why? Because 2022 is when Holmes fully leaves copyright and enters the public domain, which means that anyone – you, me, anyone – can use him in their books. He joins such figures as Captain Nemo, Ebenezer Scrooge, Dracula, Hercules, and Cinderella. You may think Holmes is already in the public sphere. Well yes and no. You see, Holmes is a maddeningly grey area for copyright lawyers. All but one of his stories are now public domain. Whether that one story still under copyright means the character is under copyright, no one is quite sure. All anyone knows is that come 2022, the Great Detective will be fully jettisoned from the safety of author-ownership, and thousands of writers want to get their hands on him. (“Elementary, my dear Hamlet!” – Copyright, Public Domain & You)

Why Use Public Domain Characters?

As with so many things, just because you can doesn't mean you should. Robert Smedley cautions that if you plan to use a public domain character be sure you have a good reason for using him. He writes:
[T]hink about the potential of that character, of whether there is anything new or meaningful you can add to their history and the shared public consciousness of that character. ("Elementary, my dear Hamlet!").

Audience Familiarity

A public domain character--Dracula for instance--already has an audience, many readers love Bram Stoker's story of horror so you have a build in audience. Which, incidentally, is also a reason not to use a public domain character. All those fans have high expectations. Even if we time-travelled and grabbed the original author and forced him to write more stories I think some fans would hate them.

It's daunting!

Question: Have you ever used a public domain character? If not, would you?

Other articles you might like:

- Chuck Wendig On Writing: How He Writes A Novel
- Connect With Readers' Emotions: How To Make People Cry
- Writer Beware: UK Speaker Scam


1. The following is from Wikipedia, Copyright law of the United States:
Works published or registered before 1978 currently have a maximum copyright duration of 95 years from the date of publication, if copyright was renewed during the 28th year following publication[33] (such renewal was made automatic by the Copyright Renewal Act of 1992; prior to this the copyright would expire after 28 years if not renewed). The date of death of the author is not a factor in the copyright term of such works.

All copyrightable works published in the United States before 1923 are in the public domain;[34] works created before 1978 but not published until recently may be protected until 2047.[35] For works that received their copyright before 1978, a renewal had to be filed in the work's 28th year with the Library of Congress Copyright Office for its term of protection to be extended. The need for renewal was eliminated by the Copyright Renewal Act of 1992, but works that had already entered the public domain by non-renewal did not regain copyright protection. Therefore, works published before 1964 that were not renewed are in the public domain. With rare exception (such as very old works first published after 2002), no additional copyrights will expire (thus entering the public domain) until at least 2019 due to changes in the applicable laws.
Photo credit: "[46/365] Count Brickula" by pasukaru76 under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.


  1. Great info, Ms. Woodward, as always. It's quite awesome to have the freedom of using some great and memorable characters, and to incorporate them in your own story. Here are some titles my wayward mind has come up with, "Captain Ahab and the sand worms," "Gulliver stays home," "Cthulhu isn't returning my calls," - though, this one is pre '23 - "Big Blue Riding Hood," "The Artful Dodger and his make-a-wish foundation," "Dracula is spelled with a K" All of these sound very good, and I claim copyright, lol. ^^

    1. lol I love those titles! Let me know when you write them. ;)

  2. Thank you! This was very helpful too me. I love public domain.

  3. This was a great article! Yes,I would use a public domain character as a main character in a story but it would have to be a lesser-known one.
    More power to those who do but I personally don`t know if I would ever use famous public domain characters such as King Arthur, Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, Robin Hood, Hercules, Thor and so on and so forth as main characters because I feel like they are over-used and overexposed public domain characters(and with Thor, even though he is in the public domain, there`s the inevitable association with the Marvel Comics-version of the character). I do intend to write a book with King Arthur as a minor character at the introduction of the story but I don`t think I would want to use him as a main character.

    Also, I plan on writing a graphic novel with a relatively obscure and little-known Super Hero from the public domain known as ''The Clock''(but I won`t call the graphic novel, itself, ''The Clock''). The public domain really is awesome-regardless if people want to use the more famous public domain characters or the lesser-known and more obscure ones.
    It is indeed, a writer`s toy-box of free-to use characters!
    Again, a great article!

    1. "The public domain really is awesome" I agree!
      Thanks for your comment and for your feedback. :-)

  4. Luckily Sherlock Holmes was released from the pseudo copyright he was under by a lawsuit forcing the gov to declare that he was always public domain! The thing about trademark is that it was not meant to protect corporations but the consumer! So the Doyle estate was essentially shaking people down to use what was already free!

    So use Felix et Al but be wary of trademark, a character is public domain when their source work enters. Hell even Scalia noted that trademark was being used as a "mutant copyright" & was unconditional

    1. Good advice! Sorry for publishing your comment so late, for some reason it was stuck in my spam filter. My apologies, in the future I'm going to be more attentive.

  5. Oh yes and when you wrote this Sherlock was completely public domain in Europe, and really everywhere in the world, because copyright in brtiain ends 70 years after death. So that's why BBC Sherlock could be made.

    1. I love that! I'm looking to more Sherlock stories being made. BTW, sorry for taking so long to respond.


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