Writing in the Public Domain (Part I)
The year 2022 was a banner year for retellings of classic stories, fairy tales, and myths, and it doesn’t show any signs of stopping. Recent and upcoming examples include Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s The Daughter of Doctor Moreau (a riff on The Island of Doctor Moreau), Nghi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful (a fantasy remix of the The Great Gatsby), and Mary McMyne’s The Book of Gothel (a retelling of Rapunzel from the villain’s point of view). It seems as though reimaginings are everywhere these days, and this trend shows no signs of stopping anytime soon.
Each January, creatives everywhere celebrate open access to new works entering the public domain. Canadian activist Wallace McLean started the tradition in 2004, but it wasn’t until later that it gained traction through promotion by the American nonprofit organization Creative Commons. The term “public domain” refers to materials that are no longer protected by intellectual property laws. Once these copyrights lapse, anyone can use or adapt these works without permission.
However, it’s important to note that the definition and timelines of these rights vary by country, which means a work that is available for fair use in the United States may not be eligible in Australia. This is especially true in Canada, which passed a law at the end of 2022 extending the copyright term from 50 years past the death of the author to 70 years. The change came about as part of international trade negotiations in the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), which required Canada to bring its copyright terms closer to that of the U.S. Although the law is not retroactive (they won't remove access to stories already in the public domain), no new materials will be added to Canada’s public domain until 2043.
However, North American writers looking to work with source materials created prior to 1900 are in luck. All of these materials are fair game, a fact that acclaimed author Margaret Atwood used to her advantage when she wrote The Penelopiad, a novella based on the Odyssey, an epic poem composed by Homer in 8th or 7th century BC. The Penelopiad is just one of the retellings in her Canongate Myth Series. Atwood’s reimagining of the Odyssey from the perspective of Penelope—the steadfast wife of Homer’s hero Odysseus—went on to earn international acclaim. In fact, The Penelopiad was so popular it was later adapted to the stage by the Canadian National Arts Centre and the British Royal Shakespeare Company.
As a general rule of thumb, works by writers who died in 1953* or earlier can be found in the public domain in most countries. But nothing to do with laws is ever easy. Even if the copyright for a work has expired (or never existed, as in the case of Shakespeare’s plays), the original material may have been republished or released with additional materials such as footnotes, prefaces, and annotations that may still be protected. New translations of old works may also be protected even though the original material is in the public domain. Just because you can find material online doesn’t mean that it is available for public use. When in doubt, it’s best to check with the copyright laws in the country where you live and work.
- Center for the Study of the Public Domain
- Creative Commons
- HathiTrust Digital Library
- Project Gutenberg
- Public Domain Review
- Internet Archive
- S. Library of Congress
- IMSLP: Petrucci Music Library
- Historic American Sheet Music
- Wikimedia Commons
*If you're reading this post in 2024 or beyond be sure to add up. Also, hello, future person!
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