Public Domain characters

by Peter Hill

Question: Is there anyway I can find out about Public Domain characters? I'd be interested to use some and am not sure where to look nor do I want to use anyone who is not public domain by accident. Many thanks.

Answer: You're generally safe using characters from stories whose authors have been dead for 50 years. (This is why so many Sherlock Holmes TV shows/films have been made in recent years.)

However, different countries have different rules, so you need to check on this when in doubt. In the US, the copyright now extends to 75 years after the author's death. Every government has an office that deals with copyright, and these offices usually have websites that explain the rules.

Some characters are also trademarked by publishing companies (for example, comic book characters) and may have different forms of protection as a result. Again, you would need to check with the government office that maintains the register in the appropriate country.

Characters in folklore dating back many centuries are fair game, which is why anyone can write a Robin Hood story. However, when writing your Robin Hood story, don't assign the character specific traits you borrowed from a recent adaptation of Robin Hood, because then you may be trespassing on a current copyright. Stick with the traditional traits and ones you invent yourself.

As always, I am not a lawyer and don't take this as legal advice. If your fortunate enough that there's money at stake, and your work falls into a grey area, you or your publisher may want to consult a lawyer.

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