I titled this series “Free Original Storyworld Ideas” but this time out I’m going to recommend taking a serious look at story worlds that most definitely are not original. Take old public domain works and make them your own by altering them!
Like the post of GameLit I did two weeks ago, this week’s post happily coincides with a book I’ve published (“coincides” because I didn’t plan this in advance). The book is Worlds of Weinbaum, which I’ll discuss later down. But first let’s discuss the pubic domain and how to mine it for stories.
Do you realize that not only is Frankenstein and Alice in Wonderland all of Jules Verne’s works in the public domain, but a lot of early science fiction, fantasy, and horror significantly later than these works is in the public domain? For example, all of the Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum is in the public domain (the books, not the movie). At least some of H.P. Lovecraft’s works are also in the public domain as well as works by H.G. Wells (War of the Worlds) and Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan, Barsoom/John Carter). And many others. Lots of very influential works.
How to Make a Public Domain Work Your Own–Possibilities
So wait a minute–you might be thinking–I could take the exact words of Frankenstein and make the monster into an alien instead of a mad scientist experiment, and the derivative work would be my own work as far as copyright law is concerned? With the caveat that I’m not an expert in copyright law (though I have done some research), yep, that’s what I’m saying. Take War of the Worlds and put the story in an alternate Earth in which the Confederacy won the Civil War and you can could copy the exact words of H.G. Wells if you wanted to, the exact dialog and even the same characters, but change it so the aliens are invading your Atlanta instead of London, and the resulting original work will be yours, free to copyright. Yes, that’s how it really works.
Maybe you noticed that I mentioned above that all of L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz books are now in the public domain but the movie isn’t? (And all of his are, though other authors also wrote Wizard of Oz books after him that may or may not be in the public domain.) But how could it be that the movie Wizard of Oz is not in the public domain? Well, the movie makers had legal permission to adapt the story to the screen. Their adaptation included some story changes that rendered their work an original work (plus being in a new medium). So its copyright is different than that of the Oz books. And isn’t due to expire until 2034.
As long as you followed details of Oz in accordance with the book version but not the movie version, then you would be working from a public domain work. Which means you could alter it at will and also copyright the alteration you made. So in the movie, Dorothy had ruby slippers, but in the book, they were silver slippers. So if you do Oz, as long as the slippers you write about are silver and not ruby, you aren’t violating a copyright on that particular detail. And as long as your details follow the book version of Oz, you are working from a public domain work–and you can change the details yourself and copyright the resulting changed work. Unless of course the details you alter copy the work someone else already did based on the original public domain work (so Oz you can copy, but Wicked or Oz the Great and Powerful you cannot freely copy).
So how do you proceed to get a copyright for yourself based on a public domain work?
First Step: Understand a Few Basics on Copyright Law
The most basic thing to understand is that for reasons that a bit complicated to explain in detail (follow this link for the details), in the United States there were some significant changes in copyright law during the 20th Century and so the rules are different depending on what year a work was published. As of 1 January 1978, the United States adopted a copyright law that parallels the laws most other countries have–that is, a work is assumed to be under copyright unless it is specified that it is not copyrighted. And the copyright lasts as long as the original author lives, plus 70 years.
That rule is significant to pay attention to if you want to claim the rights to a work in other countries, because a number of other countries apply this life of author plus 7o to works prior to 1978 (for example, Germany). But if you are only concerned about US copyright, the 1978 rule isn’t immediately significant for you. Even if an author died on January 2nd, 1978 (after the new law went into effect) his or her works won’t enter the public domain until 2048.
For the years 1977 and earlier, the USA required people wanting a copyright to prove they had a copyright and if they didn’t do that, their works are in the public domain. They had to register the book to establish it was copyrighted. Copyrights were for 28 years but could be extended one time. The original length of extension was another 28 years, but the US Congress changed it (eventually) to 67 years. For a maximum amount of copyright protection of 95 years. The Congress also made the change that books (and other copyrights) between 1964 and 1977 were automatically extended. Books 1963 and earlier were not automatically extended–and I’ve read one estimate that about 90 percent of books prior to 1963 did not have their copyright extended…and if not, they are in the public domain.
Second Step, Apply Four Important Copyright Rules to Determine if a Work is in the Public Domain
- The 95 year rule: This is the easiest one. Because the maximum amount of time a work can have copyright protection in the USA is 95 years, any work older than 95 years is automatically in the public domain. Because they wait until an entire year has passed in calculating this, what this means is every work as of 2020 that was published in 1924 or earlier is in the public domain. On January 1st, 2021, 1925 will enter the public domain. And in 2022, 1926; 2023, 1927, etc.
- The 1925 through 1977 filing rule: If a work was published between 1925 and 1977, according to US law, that work is only copyrighted if the publisher specifically applied for a copyright and filed the correct paperwork. So if you want to know if a work was properly copyrighted, you will be able to find it on the US Copyright office website. If it is not on that site, it was not copyrighted (but be sure to do a thorough search).
- The 1925 through 1963 renewal rule: Even if a work was in fact copyrighted prior to this time, if a work’s copyright was filed between 1925 and 1963 and the publisher or author did not renew the copyright, the copyright expired and the work is in the public domain now. The majority of these works are in the public domain because most book copyrights were not renewed. But this is rather a danger zone that requires some research to be sure.
- The death of author plus 70 year rule (for international copyright): Recall that the 95 year rule and the rest of these are United States rules–but internationally, the rules are different. So if you’d like your book taken-from-the-public-domain-and-copyrighted-with-your-changes to be legally recognized worldwide, you also need to pay attention to the date of the death of the author, in addition to the date of the publication of the work. For example, Princess of Mars was published by Edgar Rice Burroughs in 1912 and was in the public domain some time ago in the USA. But Burroughs died in 1950, plus 70 years means his works will just enter the public domain in Germany at the end of this year…which means as of right now, a copyright of a work you would perform on any of Edgar Rice Boroughs would not be legally recognized in Germany–but next year will be good to go. (As of the date of the publication of this article in 2020, all works of authors who died in 1949 and earlier are in the public domain by this rule.)
- This last numbered point isn’t one of the rules, but it can be a sort of “easy” button for determining if something is in the public domain. Project Gutenberg maintains copies of various books and stories that happen to be in the public domain. You can always search there for your public domain work, knowing the Gutenberg people did the work for you…and you can even download a free copy of the book from them.
Third Step, Be Aware of Already-Existing Derived Copyrighted Works and Don’t Copy Them
I already said this above, but to be extra clear, if someone else made a derived work from a public domain work, you cannot copy what they did. Oz you can use, but Oz the Great and Powerful or Wicked you can not. (By the way though–don’t these movies, Oz the Great and Powerful and Wicked, show the potential of changing a public domain work?)
Fourth Step, Create your Work and the Copyright is Yours
The question came up as I was doing some preparation for this week’s post is there’s a certain percentage you have to change a public domain work for it to be your own. Nope. There isn’t as far as I could find out. But the less you change, the easier it would be for someone to take what you did, change a few things, then say they were going off of the original public domain work, just like you did. But change a little or a lot, once you have deliberately altered a copyrighted work, the derived work is yours and you are the presumed copyright holder according to US law as it’s functioned since 1978. (Making your alterations known is a good idea from what I understand of the legalities but I don’t think is required by anyone.)
So if you like classic sci fi, fantasy, and horror tales and are eager to make them your own, some of what you really love may be in the public domain. If it is, you can make it your own copyrighted material, quite literally. Which does lead to talking about Worlds of Weinbaum.
Worlds of Weinbaum as an Example of Public Domain Mining
In my podcast this week I talked to Heather Elliot and Cindy Koepp (here’s a link to the podcast of the three of us talking) about Worlds of Weinbaum (link is to the Bear Publications website for WoW), including me mentioning the reasons why we picked short stories by Stanley G. Weinbaum as the public domain “ore” we wanted to mine. Part of the reason was because I was already familiar with his stories. Weinbaum was considered one of the greatest science fiction writers of his era.
By the way, Weinbaum wrote in the early 30s and his works were copyrighted but not renewed. He also died in the 30s of lung cancer. So by both US and European standards, his works are in the public domain. (Heather Elliot simply looked them up on Project Gutenberg and found them.)
I really enjoyed the fact that Weinbaum’s stories, which were based on imagining that many planets of the Solar System could be inhabited and were teeming with alien life, including intelligent alien life, had an early-2oth Century feel to them. Like the polar expeditions of that time, privately funded, or expeditions to tropical jungle regions. Or the feel of the pioneering days of aircraft, in which bold people privately took big risks in hopes of making history. Or making a living.
Weinbaum is credited with creating the first realistic alien character, who was neither a monster nor a human-being-in-another-form. His story A Martian Odyssey is the oldest short story that’s memorialized in the Science Fiction hall of fame.
Our Changes to Weinbaum
The changes Heather, Cindy, and I made were mainly a science update to what Weinbaum imagined. The science of his day was all wrong about what the Solar System was like, but what he thought might be possible actually is more realistic for planets around another star. So that’s how we imagined the stories, being around another star.
So we imagined hypothetical aliens lifted humans who would have perished in various disasters near the end of the 1800s and early 1900s (such as the Gavelston hurricane) and lifted them to another world without making themselves directly known. These new humans reconstructed nations and cultures that in some strong ways paralleled the 1930s that Weinbaum knew…though that parallel didn’t happen until the 20th and 21st Centuries Weinbaum wrote about as his imaginary future.
In a new star system, one redder and more compact, Weinbaum’s vision of the future of private space travel and exploration shifted from impossible to “perhaps out there somewhere this could be.” We kept much of the original stories and their dialogue, but shifted things so not all the characters were European or white American, while also blunting some of the misogynist-ish and atheistic moments of the tales and mildly adding more emphasis to some of the Biblical references Weinbaum already had made.
Weinbaum’s tales are fun and energetic and wildly imaginative. They also, by the way, frequently include love interests and resourceful female characters who make major decisions–though they also get scared and seek male help at times (nope, we didn’t edit that out).
One feature of our changes is we decided the humans inhabiting these new worlds would name them for the Solar System they knew, but flip their Greek and Latin names–so Mars and Venus, which were Latin words, we changed to Ares and Aphrodite. But for Uranus, which came from Greek, we adopted Latin word “Caelus.”
All distances of travel, references to seasons, references to past history, references to Earth animals, some character names, and some other elements we already mentioned we changed. But overall, the stories are very similar to Weinbaum’s tales as he first wrote them. With his zest and flair and fun, but more realistic and balanced. And now copyrighted, this version, by Bear Publications.
So if you were to mine the public domain for story ideas, what would interest you? H.P. Lovecraft? Sir Arthur Conan Doyle? Lewis Carroll? Mary Shelley? Edgar Rice Burroughs? L. Frank Baum? H.G. Wells? Someone else?
There’s a good chance that certain stories you admire might actually be in the public domain. All the authors I just named are either wholly or partially in the public domain.
So what are your thoughts on this topic?