Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Books In The Public Domain (that writers can play with!)

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books in lots of weird genres like fantasy (Blood of Kings and Kinsman Chronicles), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website. You can also try two of her fantasy novels for free here and here.

I'm having a CRAZY week. The rewrite of my book, King's War, is due next Friday. I've managed to cut 30K from the beast (which totally surprised me), but I'm still not quite done. But yesterday was the release day for The Reluctant King, which is ebook Part Seven in the Kinsman Chronicles, and strangely enough, the first 1/3 of the book I'm editing now.

Talk about weird. Editing a book you can't change the first 1/3 of...

So I spent yesterday wearing my Administration hat. We self-employed, entrepreneur writers wear A LOT of hats, and I've got to say, the Administration had is THE WORST! I hate this hat! It's floppy and heavy and made of vinyl that makes you sweat. I can't see very well when I wear it, so I have no idea what I'm doing. And everything takes five times as long. Perhaps I should write an Amish romance novel in hopes that it will make me enough money so that I can hire an administrative assistant. Ah, the dream... *happy sigh*

All that to say, this was not an idea week to go back to regular blog posts, so I chose to blog on something that would take very little brain power, since the Administrative hat is also absorbent from the inside and likes to suck away brain cells.

(Can you tell I don't much like admin jobs? Boo to you, admin jobs! Boo to you SEO and web design and things I do not understand! Okay, I feel better now.)

So here is my lovely book release image. Hooray for Part Seven. Almost there!

And now on to business!

Books In The Public Domain 

Retellings. They're everywhere. Always. And readers never seem to tire of them! Well, I know better than that. Many readers are sick of retellings, yet they still sell. Like crazy. But after a while, publishers grow weary. "No more Beauty and the Beast retellings," they might say. Or, "We're sick of anything Jane Austen," to which I would say they are crazy, but that's just me.

Now it's not only retellings. There are books like Wicked, which is a spin off on a character from another work. And there are publishers (and indie publishers) who attempt to make money creating their own versions of out-of-print books and selling them. For example, I could create my own line of Jane Austen books, typeset them, get covers designed, and self-publish them. If they sold, I'd make all the money. It's legal. But there are so many versions of all those books out there, odds are I wouldn't sell any. But that's how the law works. Public Domain is Public Domain. We can do what we want with it.

When Does A Work Become Part of Public Domain?

I am not a lawyer. I just Googled things until I found the answers. If you're serious about writing a retelling, do your homework and make sure your legal. (I link below to all of my sources for this post, with the exception of Wikipedia and Project Gutenberg.)

Works Published before 1923: No copyright protection. Part of the Public Domain.
Works Published between 1923-1963 without a copyright notice: No copyright protection. Part of the Public Domain.
Works Published between 1923-1963 that had a copyright notice but did not renew the copyright: No copyright protection. Part of the Public Domain.
Works Published between 1923-1963 that had a copyright notice and DID renew the copyright: Copyright lasts 95 years after the publication date.
Works published between 1964-1977 that had a copyright notice: Copyrights on these works automatically renewed for a second term.
Works published between 1978-Present: Copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years. If a corporation published the work, the copyright lasts 95 years after publication or 120 years after creation (whichever expires first).

Your brain is probably melting. I understand. Which is why if it were me, I'd stick with the REALLY old stuff, just to be safe. And if you don't like playing it safe, do your research very well.

I stumbled onto a couple interesting discussions in my research for this post. One is the discussion that Mickey Mouse is getting close to the Public Domain. But it's technically not Mickey. It's the films Steamboat Willy and The Barn Dance. At some point, time will catch up to Mickey, but you'd better believe Disney is going to fight as long as they can. Read this blog post for more information.

J. R. R. Tolkien is another author people are champing at the bit to steal from. I found some of these discussions interesting.

Read the laws for yourself. Here are two links I found helpful:
-Cornel University Library

Where Things Get Fuzzy

Those of you who've read the Brother's Grimm likely know how different those old school fairy tales are from the more contemporary movies many of us grew up on. Technically, it's those old stories that are in the Public Domain, not the Disney version, or any other recent one. So you might have a story about Cinderella and her fairy godmother, only the original Cinderella didn't have a fairy godmother. It turns out that the first use of a fairy godmother in the Cinderella story was in Charles Perrault's version. But he died in 1703. So his stories are fair game. However, you might want to have a scene where time runs out and Cinderella's pumpkin coach and all the animals turns back into their original forms in the middle of the road. And while the pumpkin coach and the animals into servants were part of Perrault's story, that scene on the road is all Disney. And if Disney wanted to, they could sue you for copyright infringement. You can read Perrault's Cinderella story here.

I've read some fairytale retellings that are QUITE fuzzy in this area--where the authors have clearly taken from the Disney version of the story. Odds are Disney has better things to do that read every retelling out there, looking for possible copyright infringements, but you never know. Be careful!

What Can We Use?

I dug around the Interweb and made this list of works that are in the Public Domain. To make it easier on myself and on you, all of these are stories published before 1923. I listed a title or three that each author is well-known for.

Louisa May Alcott: Little Women. 
Hans Christian Anderson: The Little Mermaid, The Ugly Duckling, and Thumbelina.
Jane Austen: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Emma.
L. Frank Baum: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Charlotte Bronte: Jane Eyre.
Emily Bronte: Wuthering Heights.
Frances Hodgson Burnett: The Secret Garden and A Little Princess.
Lewis Carroll: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Through The Looking Glass.
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra: Don Quixote.
Geoffrey Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales.
Dante: The Divine Comedy.
George Eliot (real name: Mary Anne Evans): Silas Marner and Middlemarch.
James Fenimore Cooper: The Last of the Mohicans, and The Deerslayer.
Daniel Defoe: Robinson Crusoe, and Moll Flanders.
Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist, and A Tale of Two Cities.
Alexandre Dumas: The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, and The Man in the Iron Mask.
Fyodor Dostoevsky: Crime and Punishment, and The Brothers Karamazov.
Henry Fielding: The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling.
Kenneth Grahame: The Wind in the Willows.
Brothers Grimm: The first to pen many of our classic fairytales.
Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Scarlet Letter.
Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan.
Homer: the Iliad, and the Odyssey.
Victor Hugo: Les Misérables, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Washington Irving: Rip Van Winkle, and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
Jack London: The Call of the Wild, The Sea Wolf, and White Fang.
Niccolo Machiavelli: The Prince.
John Milton: Paradise Lost.
Herman Melville: Moby Dick.
L. M. Montgomery: Anne of Green Gables.  (Though don't try to sell any Anne dolls. There's a trademark on that!)
Charles Perrault: The father of fairytale retellings.
Edgar Allan Poe: The Raven, The Pit And The Pendulum, and The Tell-Tale Heart.
William Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth, Taming of the Shrew.
George Bernard Shaw: Pygmalion.
Mary Shelley: Frankenstein.
Robert Louis Stevenson: Treasure Island, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Bram Stoker: Dracula.
Jonathan Swift: Gulliver's Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World.
Leo Tolstoy: War and Peace, and Anna Karenina.
Mark Twain: Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Prince and the Pauper.
Unknown: Beowulf.
Jules Verne: Journey to the Center of the Earth, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and Around the World in Eighty Days.
Voltaire: Candide.
Oscar Wilde: The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest.
Johann David Wyss: The Swiss Family Robinson.

What are some of your favorite stories that are in the Public Domain? Share in the comments.


  1. Huzzah! Les Miserables is public domain, and I know of no stories based on it. Here comes mine. *rubs hands together gleefully*

  2. I'm hoping to do a Red riding hood retelling eventually. I have some ideas, some modern and some not so modern. I just love red riding hood. My favorite retellings are the the Sisters Grimm series. The author did a fantastic job and those books, while middle grade, hold a special place in my heart.

    Thanks for this awesome post, because now I know I can move forward with no trouble. :D

  3. The first Nancy Drew book was published in 1930, then a reprint edition showed up in 1959. Do you think the original might be fair game? (There was also a facsimile version of the original published a while ago, if that makes any difference.) Really, I want to do a (loose) reselling/spin-off set in the modern day, changing names, personalities (because the original Nancy didn't have much of one) and plot (because there was no character growth). BUT I don't want to change it SO much that it's completely unrecognizable. Thoughts, anyone? BYW--no offense to those who love the classic Nancy Drew...I do, too! BUT after analyzing the books for a term paper this year, I found a lot of things I'd like to tweak. Like that plot...but I still read and love Nancy Drew books!!

    1. I grew up on Nancy Drew books. When I ran out, I read the Hardy Boys. <3

    2. You know, Taylor, it's funny--I've been wondering about Nancy Drew lately, too. Only my idea was to have a Nancy Nickerson series about Nancy as a young wife, written mainly for readers who've outgrown Nancy Drew but still love it. I can't see myself writing mysteries, though, so I haven't seriously looked into whether Nancy Drew's public domain.

  4. Another thought: A Little Princess, Anne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden, and Little Women were ALL childhood faves. Like..OOH! Ooh! What about a Frances Hodgson Burnett reselling/mashup...The Secret Garden, set at an elite English boarding school (but in present day, maybe) with overlapping characters and probably no dead dad/attic part (because that's just too sad!) BUT maybe there could be a secret in the attic...

  5. Oh gracious, thank you SO MUCH for this, Jill! I love retellings, but I've been wanting to try something OTHER than a fairytale retelling for awhile. I might have to try one of these!

    ~ Savannah | Scattered Scribblings

  6. This is a very interesting post. Thanks very much! Also, I'd like to point out that Dumas' "Twenty Years After", which is a fantastic book and the first sequel to "The Three Musketeers" (the predecessor of "The Man in the Iron Mask"), is also in the public domain. I was actually considering writing a retelling of "The Three Musketeers" until I realized that I had accidentally read the abridged version, and that all the stuff I wanted to add was probably in the full one. However, that hasn't stopped me from preparing to write a book somewhat like it--and it's good to know I can draw on stuff from Dumas legally.

    Another public domain book which is lesser known is Geoffrey of Monmouth's "The History of the Kings of Britain". It's also a good book and ripe for retelling considering it was published in the twelfth century A.D. I don't know if I'll retell it, but I'd encourage someone to do it--it's a (supposedly) fictional account of Britain's settlement by Trojans.

  7. My curren novel should be ok as it's a retelling of the original Cinderella (ancient Egypt). But I'm also working on a sequel to both Narnia and Boxcar children. I may have issues there ;/

  8. Gasp, thanks so much for this! I've been considering a Wizard of Oz retelling, but I wasn't sure if that was legal or not.