I’m currently writing a story dealing with fantasy characters. I wanted to include a couple of classical fantasy characters in my story. I was wondering if you had any advice about how to go about this? I don’t want to get sued by their owners.
Hi Jeremy, by classical, I assume you’re talking about the creative works of people like the Brother’s Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, etc?
If so, you’re in luck, most of those characters fall under public domain.
“Works in the public domain are those whose intellectual property rights have expired, have been forfeited, or are inapplicable.” Wiki
The standard rule, at least in the United States, is that pre-1923 works are in the public domain. This is… mostly correct, however, determining whether a work has entered the public domain or is still under copyright can be a lot more difficult than this, mostly because copyright terms have been extended multiple times and in different ways. At first, it was a fixed term based on the year of publication with a renewal term, to a term extending to fifty to seventy years after the death of the author. So the claim above is correct FOR PUBLISHED WORKS. Unpublished works fall under Federal Copyright laws and extend to the life of the author + 70 years.
This can differ in other countries, so check your local copyright laws or, as always, consult and attorney.
The best advice I would give is to read the stories that surround the characters thoroughly. I say this because most of those classical characters have been used in movies by Disney or have been adapted and rewritten in other versions. DO NOT JUST USE THE NAMES AND ATTRIBUTES YOU KNOW THE MOST!! I can’t stress that enough.
Why? Because if were to put the dwarves from Snow White into the story and use the names from Disney (Doc, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, Bashful, Sneezy, Dopey), you will get sued. Those names are not original to the story and are the intellectual property of the Disney Corporation.
Like I said, know your story, know your characters and know what you’re writing. Often times, taking a little creative license with these characters is not only warranted, but 100% necessary to keep the work from treading into intellectual property waters.
Lastly, please remember, I am not an attorney. I have studied the laws, having been published myself, but even I don’t know all of the nuances. My words are for advice purposes only. If you find yourself in a bit of gray area, PLEASE consult an attorney. A little money now is a lot better than being sued for a lot later and I take no responsibility if don’t.
Any thoughts from the reader base? Further advice for Jeremy?
Do you have a question about writing, publishing, my stories, etc? Please feel free to post a comment or email me.
I’ll use those comments to select my next blog post.
I have been writing for several years, have 4 published works, experience with publishing and independent work, so I can hopefully be of assistance.
Please note, I only do one of these a day and will do my best to respond to everyone, but it may take some time.
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Catch you on the flip side!
I’m sure others have done it, but because I recently read it and it’s fresh in my mind, Neil Gaiman has some excellent stories offering different takes on classic characters that fall into the public domain area. I like to sometimes write short stories with alternative takes as a way to get creative juices flowing. Starting with a character that you know/exists can help free up energy to focus on the story instead of detailed character development.