Top 5 characters in the public domain

Top 5 characters in the public domain

The adverts we see online are tailored to us through algorithms. That is to say that robots monitor our search history (a scary thought) and then suggest products or services that they think we might be interested in. After I published my post last December about Sony’s Spider-Verse (you can read that post by clicking anywhere in this these brackets) I have been seeing a lot of Superhero related paraphernalia online. One particular poster caught my attention.

If the picture isn’t clear, allow me to describe it for you. It’s a collection of DC and Marvel characters parodying the famous Lunch atop a Skyscraper picture. The original picture can be seen below.

I’ve seen the superhero version of this photograph several times, including at Comic-con. While this image isn’t offensive it does raise the question… did Marvel and DC both agree to this image? Is it legal? I assumed so, as the image was being sold at events where Marvel and DC were both present. The more I looked into the matter, however, the more fascinated I became.

Before we continue we need to understand the term copyright and what it means. There isn’t one clear cut definition of copyright as it varies from country to country but generally the term means the exclusive legal right to sell, reproduce, publish or distribute something. If you hold the copyright on something then you can control how it is circulated. In the UK an author’s copyright expires seventy years after their death. Unless the author has made a prior agreement, their work will enter the public domain where anyone can access and adapt it.

As the venders at Comic-con aren’t licensed by DC or Marvel and they don’t own the copyright to any characters in the images they are selling, is what their doing illegal? Technically, yes. They are circulating images of characters they do not own in order to create a financial profit. This raises the next question, why aren’t the bigger companies stopping them? The answer is surprisingly simple. A lack of power. If the venders at Comic-con were removed from the venue then another vender, selling similar products would take their place. There are countless rip offs of famous characters seen every day (for example the characters on bouncy castles or ice cream trucks contain at least one purposeful inaccuracy) and when you take into account that millions of memes regarding these characters are shared across the globe, the sellers at Comic-Con become a rather moot point.

A meme such as this…

There are various reasons how and why characters enter the public domain, as promised by the title of this post here are five examples.

1 – Robin Hood/King Arthur

Although the exact origins of King Arthur are unknown the earliest known reference to character dates back to the early 900’s. This reference can be found in the Annales Cambride (a collection of Roman reports detailing events from Wales and Britain) which states that in 516AD Arthur won the Battle of Baton and in 537AD Arthur and Modrid fell. Different elements of the King Arthur mythos was added over time such as the idea of a Round Table, Arthur’s noble Knights and the quest for the Holy Grail until Thomas Malory combined all of these elements into one text called Le Morte d’Arthur in 1485.

Robin Hood shares a similar history. Although the earliest written reference to Robin Hood can be found in a poem by Piers Plowman in the 1300’s, historians believe that Hood was a known folk hero to the people of Britain for at least several hundred years before this. In the fifteenth century Robin Hood was worshipped with almost God like significance and many criminals, when arrested, would state their name as “Robin Hood” similar to how modern criminals use the alias John Smith. Throughout time different aspects of the Robin Hood legend were added, including Maid Marian, Guy of Gisborne and the Sheriff of Nottingham while Robin’s character was tweaked from a blood thirsty killer to anti-hero. Eventually the legend grew into the version modern day readers would be familiar with.

I’ve placed both of these British folk heroes together as they are they are in the Pubic Domain for the same reason. The first copy right law was introduced in the UK by Queen Anne in the year 1710. Although the years of origin for both characters are certain, they both predate 1710 and therefore no-one can claim ownership of them. Hence both characters exist within the public domain.

2 – Sherlock Holmes

I spoke about Sherlock and copyright in great detail last month so I’ll only provide a quick summary here. If you want to read more about The Great Detective, click anywhere in this paragraph.

Sherlock Holmes was created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1887 and is credited as one of the most adapted characters of all time. Although the rights to Sherlock reside in the public domain in the UK, in the US the final twelve Holmes stories (known collectively as the Casebook of Sherlock Homes) are still owned by the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Estate. This means that any aspects of the mythos introduced in these final stories cannot be used without permission. These include the death of Mary Watson, John Watson remarrying and Sherlock’s retirement from Baker Street. Curiously as the character mellows in his retirement any incarnation of Sherlock can’t be seen as too kind. This is because they would be too similar to the Sherlock seen in The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes. If you think this is silly (and it is) it should be noted that the makers of Netflix’s Enola Holmes were threatened with legal action over their portrayal of the detective. Thankfully the US copyright will elapse later this year so writers don’t need to worry about this legal clause for long.

3 – Frankenstein

Although Dracula is the most widely adapted character of all time Frankenstein also receives a fair number of adaptations with perhaps his most notable being the 1931 film by Universal Pictures. Frankenstein’s literacy origins date back to 1816, Mary Shelley, inspired by her friend’s ghost story competition and talks of galvanism (using electricity to stimulate muscles) created the novel Frankenstein. In the novel, Doctor Victor Frankenstein creates a monster, sewed together from numerous human corpses, only to reject the creature after bring it to life. The creature then haunts its creator and chases Victor across the globe, murdering his family and friends.

Interestingly only the Frankenstein from the 1931 film is under copyright, the original from Mary Shelley’s novel is in the public domain. This is due to the large number of differences between the adaptation and source material. For example the monster from the novel has no name and although it has mismatched eyes it isn’t considered ugly. The monster is also well read and articulate in his speech. In the film Frankenstein is revolting, mindless zombie who is unable to speak in full sentences. Doctor Frankenstein’s assistant, Igor, does not appear in the novel and the monster is not brought to life via lightening as it is in the film (in fact, the monster is brought to life with a spark although how this is achieved is ambiguous in the text). In short, Universal Pictures own the film rights to their own adaptation but not the source material.

4 – Most fairy tale characters

It is impossible to date the earliest example of a fairy-tale as they existed in countless cultures before recorded history. We know that that some of these stories were based off real events and inspired by real individuals (to see a previous post about the origin of fairy tales click here) and we know that the stories were told to both adults and children who treated the stories as fact. The most well known collection of Fairy Tales come from the Brother’s Grimm who created their famous anthology in 1812.

Although the Grimm Brothers released their collection in 1812, almost one hundred year after copy right was introduced, their rights have since elapsed and all of their characters have entered the public domain. This allows anyone (such as Disney) to create stories based off these characters.

Brothers Grimm fairy tales were never meant for kids | National Geographic
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, collectively known as the Brothers Grimm

5 – The Gods

Similar to the fairy tales characters above, it is incredibly difficult to date how old the character of a certain god is. Although the Gods clearly predate 1710, most gods are hybrids of previous deities. For example the character Aphrodite, the Greek Goddess of Love can be dated back two thousands years before the Ancient Greek religion and linked to two different deities, Ishtar and Astarte. For context, Ishtar was worshipped in 4000 BCE and Astarte 1450 BCE while the worshippers of Aphrodite lived in the 900’s BCE.

As many religious texts were written before the existence of copyright and were supposedly penned by religious individuals they all exists within the public domain. Although these characters and the stories associated with them are free to use, you do run the risks of offending religions groups. I was surprised to learn this but there are people who still worship the Ancient Greek and Ancient Norse Pantheons.

Venus & Aphrodite by Bettany Hughes review - The TLS
The Goddess Aphrodite

Can you think of any other characters that live in the public domain? Let me know on social media and I’ll see you next time.

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