Happy Public Domain Day

Illustration from Tarzan and the Ant Men – public domain

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Back in January, I tucked this idea in a folder and promptly forgot about it. Just found it. Unlike my memory, however, this information hasn’t expired.

If you’re not familiar with Public Domain Day, January 1 of each year marks the expiration of 95-year-old copyrights of films, songs, and books. As of January 1, 2020, creative works copyrighted in 1924 became free to use by anyone, hence the term “public domain.”

What does that mean?

We the public can now watch Harold Lloyd’s classic silent films like Girl Shy and Hot Water for free.


A composer, musician, dancer, or songwriter can now freely use George Gershwin’s classic “Rhapsody in Blue” and incorporate the tune into a new pop song, rap interpretation, music video, reggae routine, or any other variation they please.

Once the copyright expires on books, plays, or movies, anyone is legally allowed to adapt those stories into prequels, sequels, or offshoots; or take characters derived from the original work and feature them in completely new tales. Authors don’t need to pay a fee or obtain permission from a copyright holder to use them.

The Divine Comedy is an epic poem completed in 1320 by Dante Alighieri. The poem was not protected by copyright. Film maker William Fox adapted a portion of that work into Dante’s Inferno, a silent film that was copyrighted in 1924 and is now in the public domain.The story cards at the beginning explain why Fox made the film:

“In presenting in screen form the more striking scenes of “Dante’s Inferno” we are realizing a cherished ambition. After a long period of careful preparation and thought, we decided to interpret reverently this classic masterpiece in its undisguised truth—weaving into its vivid realism the thread of a simple modern story. Thus the warning of Dante is more definitely emphasized—that by our daily thoughts and acts we may be unconsciously building up for our own future—A VERITABLE HELL ON EARTH.

“In the human brain a thin wall divides a heaven and a hell. Are we hewing down that wall? Are we leaving love and sunshine for the crimson realms of agony and remorse?”

The theme of The Inferno clearly resonated with Fox, inspiring him to update the story to his then-contemporary world. In the same way that Fox took an old poem without a copyright and adapted it to a different era, today’s movie makers might use his 1924 film as the basis and inspiration for new creations.

What can writers do with works in the public domain?

We can re-imagine a timeless theme in a new form.

We can take a classic story and play it out in a different setting. Christopher Robin in space? Peter Pan in a post-apocalyptic world?

We can resurrect a beloved or fascinating character to live again in further adventures.

In the 1924 film, Sherlock Jr., Buster Keaton aspires to be a great detective like Sherlock Holmes and embarks on a series of comic, crime-solving adventures. This silent classic showcases Keaton’s incredible versatility as a director, actor, comedian, and super stunt man. Click on this link for 45 minutes of fun.

Other works that came into the public domain last January include:

Tarzan and the Ant Men by Edgar Rice Burroughs

 

When We Were Very Young by A.A. Milne

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

The Man in the Brown Suit by Agatha Christie

The first film adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s play, Peter Pan.

Here’s a link to other works that are now in the public domain.

 

Project Gutenburg makes an extensive collection of public domain works (under Australian copyright laws) available to read for free. As a kid, I was a huge fan of Dr. Doolittle books by Hugh Lofting.  After finding the site, I spent an hour happily touring with Dr. Doolittle’s Circus and remembering illustrations I hadn’t seen in 60 years.

Today, if I wanted to write a book starring Dr. Doolittle’s sidekick, Matthew Muggs, AKA the Cat’s-Meat-Man, and Mrs. Theodosia Muggs, that is allowable.

Illustration from Dr. Doolittle’s Circus where Mrs. Muggs dispatches two villains

 

 

It’s not necessary to wait until a work goes into the public domain to use it but you must obtain permission from the copyright holder and/or pay a fee (often hefty). For instance, Desire Under the Elms, the 1924 play by Eugene O’Neill, was adapted into a 1958 movie. At least a portion of the film’s budget went to lawyers negotiating the rights under which O’Neill’s play could become a movie. If producers had waited until 2020, they could have had free, unfettered use of the play. But they’d no longer have the stellar cast from 1958:  Sophia Loren, Burl Ives, and Anthony Perkins.

Under earlier copyright law, the term of the copyright for a creative work was 75 years. In 1998, Congress extended the term to 95 years, due in large part to the lobbying of The Walt Disney Company. They wanted longer protection for the ginormous income stream generated by a certain mouse. Under current law, unless another extension is granted, Mickey will enter the public domain in 2024. After that, theoretically, anyone may be able to use Mickey’s image and earn money from it.

Want to bet on that happening?

Nah, me neither.

Works in the public domain can be a source of inspiration for writers to freshen a timeless theme, to create new stories that happen before or after the original work, or to breathe new life into memorable characters.

When Casablanca goes into the public domain in 2037, I’ll write the sequel I’ve had in mind for years…if I’m still around.

Not betting on that either!

~~~

TKZers: Do you ever hanker to write a new episode or sequel to a favorite book or series? Please give examples.

What books or movies do you look forward to being in the public domain?

~~~

 

 

Debbie Burke’s latest thriller, Dead Man’s Bluff, will enter the public domain in the year 2115. Or you can buy it now for only $.99.

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In Praise of Entertaining Fiction

Burroughs“I have been writing for nineteen years and I have been successful probably because I have always realized that I knew nothing about writing, and have merely tried to tell an interesting story entertainingly.”

So wrote Edgar Rice Burroughs in an article for Writer’s Digest in 1930. The full text may be found here. I love the up-front honesty of the statement. It resonates with me because the first “real” book I read all the way through was Tarzan of the Apes. I still remember the feeling of being gripped by a story that wouldn’t let me go. When I finished, I knew I wanted to do the same thing someday.

I can even remember the precise moment I got pulled in so deep I put everything aside–playing outside, watching TV, riding my bike to the candy store–just so I could finish that book!

Allow me to share that moment with you.

Chapter One begins as a narrative frame, the voice telling us that he cannot vouch for the truthfulness of the tale, but what he is about to reveal is based upon the “yellow, mildewed pages of the diary of a man long dead.”

The man is John Clayton, Lord Greystoke. The text continues:

We know only that on a bright May morning in 1888, John, Lord Greystoke, and Lady Alice sailed from Dover on their way to Africa.

A month later they arrived at Freetown where they chartered a small sailing vessel, the Fuwalda, which was to bear them to their final destination.

And here John, Lord Greystoke, and Lady Alice, his wife, vanished from the eyes and from the knowledge of men.

I was hooked for sure. But the best was yet to come.

We are introduced to Black Michael, a mutineer, and I loved pirate stories as a boy. In Chapter Two, Black Michael takes over the ship and instead of killing the Claytons, as heTarzan_of_the_Apes_in_color was wont to do, he spares them because John Clayton had saved Black Michael’s life in Chapter One. Instead, the pirate sends Clayton and his pregnant wife to the jungle shore, where they will be on their own to survive!

But the best…not yet!

In Chapter Three the baby is born, a son, as John tries valiantly to make a safe home in the jungle for them, hoping against hope that a party from England will eventually find them.

Alas, it is not to be. Poor Alice dies. And the baby! The baby must still be nursed! The chapter ends with the last, sad journal entry of a man soon to be dead himself:

My little son is crying for nourishment—O Alice, Alice, what shall I do?

Great heavens! I was so into the story now. But there was more! I fell indelibly under the spell of Burroughs with the beginning of Chapter Four:

In the forest of the table-land a mile back from the ocean old Kerchak the Ape was on a rampage of rage among his people.

Wow!

The younger and lighter members of his tribe scampered to the higher branches of the great trees to escape his wrath; risking their lives upon branches that scarce supported their weight rather than face old Kerchak in one of his fits of uncontrolled anger.

The other males scattered in all directions, but not before the infuriated brute had felt the vertebra of one snap between his great, foaming jaws.

A luckless young female slipped from an insecure hold upon a high branch and came crashing to the ground almost at Kerchak’s feet.

With a wild scream he was upon her, tearing a great piece from her side with his mighty teeth, and striking her viciously upon her head and shoulders with a broken tree limb until her skull was crushed to a jelly.

And then he spied Kala, who, returning from a search for food with her young babe, was ignorant of the state of the mighty male’s temper until suddenly the shrill warnings of her fellows caused her to scamper madly for safety.

But Kerchak was close upon her, so close that he had almost grasped her ankle had she not made a furious leap far into space from one tree to another—a perilous chance which apes seldom if ever take, unless so closely pursued by danger that there is no alternative.

She made the leap successfully, but as she grasped the limb of the further tree the sudden jar loosened the hold of the tiny babe where it clung frantically to her neck, and she saw the little thing hurled, turning and twisting, to the ground thirty feet below.

With a low cry of dismay Kala rushed headlong to its side, thoughtless now of the danger from Kerchak; but when she gathered the wee, mangled form to her bosom life had left it.

Oh man! That was it! I was left hanging with a baby, all alone in the jungle, in the last chapter. Now I am completely into the story of…an ape! An ape who has lost her baby! And this villain named Kerchak. I wanted him to get his just desserts! I knew this poor ape Kala would find the Clayton baby and take him as her own. And that sooner or later, one or both of them would have to kill Kerchak in a duel to the death.

This was more than mere entertainment. This was magic. A story world unlike anything I’d ever seen, even when watching the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies I loved so much.

Burroughs, no doubt, influenced generations of boys to become readers, authors, or perhaps flat-out adventurers. But when I mentioned the Burroughs quote at the top of this post to an online group of veteran writers, I was delighted by several women saying the John Carter and Tarzan books were favorites of theirs, too.

Which proves that great storytelling is great storytelling. That’s what we writers must aim for, every time we sit down and clack the keyboard. As Burroughs himself put it in that WD article:

“I have felt that it was a duty to those people who bought my books that I should give them the very best within me. I have no illusions as to the literary value of what I did give them, but I have the satisfaction of knowing that I gave them the best that my ability permitted.”

So what author carried you away like this when you were a kid?

 

 

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