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It seems that almost all the movies being made now are either sequels, prequels, remakes or adaptations. Original stories are hard to come by these days. The studios and the producers want something with a previous track record or pre-existing audience that is easy to market. While it’s easy to attribute this disturbing trend to the lack of creativity and imagination of the blue suited penguins that we call studio executives, where does that leave the fledgling filmmaker or screenwriter struggling to create something entertaining and good? Unless you’re blood brothers with the author or have deep pockets, you’re probably not going to be able to secure the rights to adapt that best-selling book that everyone in Hollywood is after. And forget about adapting the latest installment of that popular franchise unless you’re an A-list writer or a stripper. So what’s a screenwriter or filmmaker to do?

One possible solution is the adaptation of works in the public domain. A public domain work is a creative work that is not protected by copyright and which may be freely used by everyone. In other words, the author no longer has any claims to his work either because they did not renew their copyright or they’re probably dead.

Why should you think about adapting a work in the public domain? For the same reason that producers and other blue suited penguins greenlight sequels, prequels, remakes and adaptations of current best sellers. It’s easier to sell a known commodity than it is to market a brand new widget (i.e. movie).

While I was in film school at USC, my professor Jeffrey Obrow told us that one of the big reasons he was able to secure financing for his horror film Bram Stoker’s Mummy was because the producers were able to capitalize on the name recognition of Bram Stoker (of Dracula fame) in foreign markets to help sell the film.

Had this been just an original script about a mummy, my professor would probably have had a much harder time convincing the producers to finance his movie. In fact, one of Mr. Obrow’s previous efforts in the horror genre, The Servants of Twilight was also produced, in large part, because it was based on the Dean R. Koontz novel of the same name.

But the reason I bring up Bram Stoker’s Mummy is because all of Bram Stoker’s books and other literary works are in the public domain. That means you could write your own adaptation of Dracula or Lair Of The White Worm if you so desired without having to pay a cent to the author’s estate. Who else’s work is in the public domain? Well, if you like horror, there’s Edgar Allan Poe. Or you could try your hand at adapting one of the stories featuring Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary detective Sherlock Holmes. Or for adventure you could make a version of The Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. The point is there scores of highly recognizable literary works available for you to adapt and sell. And public domain works are not just limited to books and literary works, they also include songs, movies and other type of creative, intellectual property.

So how do you tell which works are in the public domain? Copyright law is a little complex and confusing. The chart below indicates how to figure out if a book or creative work is in the public domain.

Created 1-1-78 or after When work is fixed in tangible medium
of expression
Life + 70 years1(or if
work of corporate authorship, the shorter of 95 years from publication,
or 120 years from creation2
Published before 1923 In public domain None
Published from 1923 – 63 When published with notice3 28 years + could be renewed for 47
years, now extended by 20 years for a total renewal of 67 years. If not
so renewed, now in public domain
Published from 1964 – 77 When published with notice 28 years for first term; now automatic
extension of 67 years for second term
Created before 1-1-78 but not published 1-1-78, the effective date of the
1976 Act which eliminated common law copyright
Life + 70 years or 12-31-2002, whichever
is greater
Created before1-1-78 but published between then and 12-31-2002 1-1-78, the effective date of the
1976 Act which eliminated common law copyright
Life + 70 years or 12-31-2047 whichever
is greater


As you can see, it can get complicated. Pretty much everything created before 1923 is in the public domain. The Library Of Congress has a search engine for works published from 1978 to the present. And for those pesky works in between 1923 and 1978, you can search the web for information or hire the Library of Congress to research it for you for $150/hour if you want to be completely sure. If anyone finds a good, reliable public domain search engine please let me and all the other readers know. Good luck.

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