In partnership with Creative Screenwriting and ScreenCraft, “First Draft” is a series on everything to do with screenwriting.
Hollywood has been obsessed with Intellectual Property (IP) for decades—but what are novice screenwriters supposed to do when the expectations of having attached IP are at an all-time high? Most screenwriters can’t afford to buy the rights to the latest hit book or graphic novel—so they must turn to the Public Domain.
The concept of pre-established content recognition in the public eye offers studio executives, marketing executives, and corporate shareholders a piece of mind. That obsession grew substantially after the one-two punch of the economy crisis and Writers Guild strike that both took place in 2007 and 2008. Multiple studio development deals that writers had for the development of original material were quickly dropped. Anything that was even a slight risk had to go. Studios have become even more risk averse as the ripple effect of those turbulent months is still felt a decade later.
Most award-winning dramas these days are direct adaptations of best-selling novels. Most blockbuster studio tentpoles are direct adaptations of comics and graphic novels. Most new screenwriting deals that you read about in the trades have some form of IP attached to them.
Films based on original ideas and original spec screenplays are few and far between.
While the market is in search of original material, such screenplays are usually used as calling cards for studio assignments for other projects.
So it goes without saying that having at least one screenplay with some form of IP attached increases your odds of actually getting it purchased and made. Whether it’s a character that everyone will know or based on a book whose author’s name most people will recognize, these types of scripts are necessary additions to have present in your deck of screenplays as you try to break through those Hollywood doors.
But unless you have hundreds of thousands of dollars to spare for the cinematic adaptation rights to current best-sellers and pop culture hits, you’re stuck in the mud.
Enter the Public Domain.
The Public Domain Explained
The Public Domain refers to properties that are available for anyone to utilize, thanks to copyright expiration, copyright loss due to loopholes and mistakes, death of the copyright owner, or failure for the copyright owner to file for the rights or extension to those rights.
According to Stanford University Libraries:
“Copyright has expired for all works published in the United States before 1923. In other words, if the work was published in the U.S. before January 1, 1923, you are free to use it in the U.S. without permission. As an example, the graphic illustration of the man with mustache (below) was published sometime in the 19th century and is in the public domain, so no permission was required to include it within this book. These rules and dates apply regardless of whether the work was created by an individual author, a group of authors, or an employee (a work made for hire).
Because of legislation passed in 1998, no new works will fall into the public domain until 2019, when works published in 1923 will expire. In 2020, works published in 1924 will expire, and so on. For works published after 1977, if the work was written by a single author, the copyright will not expire until 70 years after the author’s death. If a work was written by several authors and published after 1977, it will not expire until 70 years after the last surviving author dies.”
It’s important to note that public domain characters and properties that screenwriters pursue have the danger of infringing on general trademarks from other interpretations of public domain content. While Norse mythology characters are obviously public domain, you can’t emulate Disney/Marvel’s Thor character trademarks from the comics and Marvel Cinematic Universe movies. You would have to tell your own, very unique and different version of the story and character. One that doesn’t infringe on Disney/Marvel’s trademarks that they’ve established.
So when it comes to the legalities of what you plan on doing with anything from the public domain, proceed with caution despite the general stipulation that the property is available.
What to Look for in a Public Domain Character or Property
There’s a cynical—but often true—saying in Hollywood, “Everything’s been done before.”
When you’re looking at the public domain, you’ll often see some rather familiar faces and stories. The point isn’t to just write your version of those stories that have already been told in novels, TV shows, and movies. Instead, you want to look at those properties through a different lens and find unique ways to use those characters and their stories.
You could focus on telling a story through a supporting character’s eyes. You could switch the genders of those iconic characters. You could pull the general story and characters out of the time period they were originally placed in and set them into present time or the future.
Whatever it takes to offer a unique approach that will raise the eyebrows of Hollywood—it’s up to you to find it.
With that in mind, we feature the hottest properties in the current public domain that screenwriters can go to in search of writing a script that is attached to those two magical words that Hollywood loves so much—Intellectual Property.