A character that nobody owns anymore, or was never owned in the first place, that everybody wants to take a shot at writing.
Under U.S. law, works first published in 1922 or earlier are no longer subject to copyright. Before the 1970s, copyright was not automatic in the United States and most other countries, and it was possible for a copyright to lapse if not registered or renewed in a timely manner, so certain later works are public domain as well. In Europe, the rule is that the author has to have been dead for 70 years. Under the Berne Convention, work-for-hire has a copyright term of 100 years from the date of publication. Additionally, the holder of a copyright may choose to release it prematurely into the Public Domain.
Thanks to the trend of various changes in legislation, copyright terms can sometimes be cynically described as lasting at least X+20 years, where X is the number of years since the release of Steamboat Willie, the first Mickey Mouse cartoon (this is not strictly correct as it was actually the third Mickey Mouse cartoon, but it was the first talkie and the first to be widely released). It is generally agreed that the most recent extension of American copyright duration — the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act — was enacted at the behest of the Walt Disney Company solely to keep Mickey Mouse cartoons from entering the public domain.
Given Congress' willingness to extend copyright duration any time Hollywood demands it, it is entirely possible that — in America at least — the pool of public domain characters has reached its maximum size and will grow no larger, except by accident or oversight. 2010 marked a year where no new additions were made to public domain in America from works with expiring copyrights, a statistic which will repeat for several more years unless the law changes appropriately (and there is a law in progress trying to do just that). Worse yet, as of January 2012 it is now possible in the United States for works to be taken back out of the public domain, leading to the inevitable conclusion that the pool of public domain characters has not only reached its maximum size, it is likely to shrink. (Ironically, the very same Hollywood corporations responsible for the original copyright durations would probably be the first to fight tooth and nail to keep certain properties in the public domain, if only so that they could continue making movies with some of the characters mentioned below.)
A distinction should be made between public domain characters and public domain works; Bugs Bunny is a trademarked character and not in public domain, but his earliest individual cartoons are.
It should be noted that, in general, a trademark is forever. As long as the holder of the trademark is creating some kind of "product" (media counts), and that they fulfill certain requirements (protecting the trademark is generally required), they can demand that the courts enforce the trademark. This is another reason why trademarks have become more common.
One interesting side-note to keep in mind is that there is a difference between copyright (the legal right to control the reproduction of a particular expression of an idea or concept) and trademark (a symbol, character or design which is intended to be emblematic of a particular product or organization and used to identify them in a kind of visual shorthand). Public domain generally deals with copyright alone — meaning that it might be possible for someone to legally write a story with a public domain character, only to find they cannot legally sell their story using that character's name, because someone else holds the trademark. This has happened.
In the USA, the Supreme Court decision Dastar v. Twentieth Century Fox (2003) ruled that a public domain work doesn't violate the trademark of the underlying work. The specific ruling was a narrow one that dealt with "reverse passing off", rather than using a trademarked name. The ruling is generally believed to apply to using names as well, in which case it would indeed be legal to use a trademarked name on a public domain story, but no case that confirms this has reached the Supreme Court yet.
Of course, even if a character isn't in the Public Domain, a good writer can probably find a way to get that character in by creating a Captain Ersatz or an Alternate Company Equivalent, or by utilizing a Lawyer-Friendly Cameo. And if that writer can't even use a character he created thanks to the wonders of modern copyright law, then he can use an Expy. Sometimes, they can just graft that character onto a Historical-Domain Character (see below). Of course, sometimes all this can just go too far, when a certain popular character becomes known as a Fountain of Expies.
A character can also fall into the public domain if it doesn't meet threshold or originality — which means characters that are too simple to be copyrighted. For example, a single grey square cannot be copyrighted, nor can a stick figure.
Compare Historical-Domain Character, which are people from Real Life; and Literary Mash-Ups, in which entire public domain works are violated improved. Also be wary of examples in general found in the wild as, despite all pretenses, many people don't know much of copyright law in general and those that do, certainly don't know the intricacies and legal interpretations of such. Further, copyright holders often give the impression that they have more extensive rights than they really do (for example, implying that an entire series is copyrighted, when some of it might be public domain). And indeed, for certain instances, people don't often realize the history of certain characters resulting in Reality Is Unrealistic. See Santa Claus.
Keep in mind that producers may arrange for a license to use the name or likeness of a character even if it's likely to be in the public domain, or even if the use would not normally be considered infringement if it were not. A recent example is the agreement between Conan O'Brien's producers and the owner of the Conan the Barbarian literary estate allowing Conan to use his first name as the title of his talk show. TBS apparently thought it prudent to get the agreement even though it's unlikely the literary estate would be so foolhardy as to sue; the defense of even a frivolous lawsuit would run to many times the cost of such an agreement.
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Comic Books, Comic Strips
Many Golden Age comic book characters wound up falling into public domain because their original publishers either went out of business or failed to renew the copyrights. Most Fawcett Comics and Quality Comics characters fall into the latter category. With Quality Comics, DC Comics acquired the characters while they were still under copyright, but they allowed the characters that they weren't using to enter the public domain. Fawcett Comics licensed its characters to DC until it went out of business in 1980s and DC bought them outright, but, once again, it didn't renew copyrights for anyone but Captain Marvel and his supporting cast. A number of public domain characters were subsequently reused by more recent publishers:
In the 1980s, Eclipse Comics revived Airboy, a Hillman Comics character. The title's supporting cast and villains were often borrowed from Air Fighters Comics/Airboy Comics, a title Airboy originally appeared in.
Also in the 1980s, ACE Comics briefly revived Columbia Comic superheroes Skyman and the Face. The company also reprinted several Golden Age comics from various publishers. The company went bankrupt before their revival could get beyond the initial mini-series.
In the early 1990s, Malibu Comics used Centaur Comics characters as the basis for "Protectors Universe," their first superhero line (not the be confused with Ultraverse, the superhero line that replaced it).
In 1994, Roy Thomas used several public domain characters from several defunct comic companies in the Invaders mini-series, casting the characters as heroes who underwent a Face-Heel Turn. He originally intended to use obscure Marvel ComicsGolden Age characters, but he was overruled by his editor. One of those characters (Dr Nemesis) went on to play a supporting role in Uncanny X-Men.
In the early 2000s, Alan Moore revived Nedor Comics characters in the Tom Strong series. They were later used in two Terra Obscura mini-series.
Dynamite Entertainment has used about any public domain superhero they could get their hands on in the pages of Project Superpowers. This includes nearly all of the characters previously seen in Terra Obscura.
AC Comics made a habit of using public domain characters both in new series and reprints of original stories. Unlike the previous examples, which focused on a specific company, AC Comics used any character that was available, including minor Fawcett and Quality characters.
Oddly, Dynamic Man used in The Twelve is not a public domain character — he is owned by Marvel. However, he served as the basis for Harry "A" Chesler's version of Dynamic Man, which appeared in Project Superpowers. The later version had many similarities to the former, but several minor details (such as their respective civilian identities) were different enough to make them distinct.
At around the same time as Project Superpowers, Image Comics started the Next Issue Project. Unlike most of the above-mentioned projects, which updated the characters for modern sensibilities, the Next Issue Project is more of a RetrauxAffectionate Parody, with Golden Age-style stories, issues the size of Golden Age comics rather than modern comics, and even vintage ads.
Many of the Nedor characters (and quite a few characters from other publishers) are also being used in Heroes Inc, a webcomic created by Scott Austin. The story takes place in an alternate reality where the allies of WWII lost the war. The Nedor character American Crusader is an aging hero collecting DNA from various heroes in an attempt to revive the Golden Age. Many changes have been made to the characters origin stories and appearance.
The original version of Blue Beetle (created for Fox Features Syndicate) is public domain, but subsequent Charlton Comics (and, later DC Comics') revamps are not — they all belong to DC Comics. Furthermore, DC Comics owns the Blue Beetle trademark, which is why AC Comics and Dynamite Entertainment changed their versions' name to avoid litigation.
Centaur's John Aman, AKA Amazing-Man, was a member of the supporting cast of Marvel's Immortal Iron Fist as The Prince of Orphans, which is fitting since, according to Roy Thomas, Iron Fist's co-creator, Iron Fist was based on the Amazing Man.
The comic-book superheroine Octobriana may or may not have been created for anti-Soviet underground comics anonymously circulated in the USSR during the Cold War. Regardless of the truth of her origins, however, she is still in the public domain.
Jenny Everywhere, the comic-book character, was explicitly created to serve this purpose. She's not so much public domain but as open source as modern copyright law permits of modern creations.
Little Nemo (At least the character itself and the comic, not the movie.)
The site pdsh.wikia.com is a wiki all about public domain superhero characters. There are a few open source characters, a la Jenny Everywhere, as well. The rest are all Golden Age heroes or Silver Age characters that had their publishers badly screw up the copyright registration.
"It's a Wonderful Life" is, technically, in the public domain — but you won't find it on any network other than NBC in the holiday season thanks to the twists in copyright law discovered by Republic Pictures. They currently own copyrights to the score of the movie and have secured the exclusive film rights to its literary basis, "The Greatest Gift" (which has not fallen into the public domain). As a result, they are permitted to control the film as though they were the copyright holders.
Visit any Wal-Mart in the US or Canada and you'll find many DVDs on budget labels featuring famous movies and movie stars. This is due to a huge number of films falling out of copyright and going into public domain, either due to failure by the studio to put a copyright notice on the film in the first place, or a studio or other entity failing to renew copyright. Among the literally hundreds of examples of films that are public domain and thus fair game for anyone to release on home video are the classic MGM musicals Royal Wedding and Till the Clouds Roll By, the Cary Grant/Audrey Hepburn film Charade, the Jayne Mansfield film The Fat Spy, Jane Russell's The Outlaw, the Fleischer Superman cartoon shorts of the 1930s, and several Tarzan films. To name, literally, only a very few. Simply put, if you see the same film released by a half dozen different companies on Amazon or in a store, and it's not an "imported" bootleg, then odds are it's fallen into public domain.
Sherlock Holmes, except for a few stories near the end in the US. Dr. Watson, too, or we'd have had lawsuits by now.
Sherlock Holmes illustrates the differences in international copyright law. The first stories have never had copyright in the US. When Star Trek first included them, Paramount almost did get sued because they were still under copyright in the UK. The Conan Doyle estate sent them a Strongly Worded Letter saying they'd have to pay a fee the next time they wanted to use Holmes, so they didn't revisit the character until two seasons later.
A small legal fight is currently occurring over whether the stories going out of copyright means the characters go out, too. Leslie Klinger says yes, the Doyle estate says no.
Many of the Arsčne Lupin stories are in the public domain in the United States, including the famous "crossovers" with Sherlock Holmes. At the time they were written Doyle put and end to Leblanc's efforts and the detective was forced to match wits with the Gentleman Thief under the pseudonyms "Herlock Sholmes" and "Holmlock Shears." Now that both characters are freely available US publishers tend to publish the stories the way they were intended with the two great literary characters intersecting as Worthy Opponents.
In addition, the anime series Lupin III, which focused on Lupin's grandson, can now be released under its original title outside of Japan; previously, the character was called "Rupan" or "The Wolf" in English-speaking countries.
Likewise, the first eight books of Burroughs' most famous creation, Tarzan, are public domain in the United States; however, Disney has tried to claim trademark rights, at least in Denmark. The Burroughs corporation beat them to it. Burroughs also co-owns the copyright in the Disney Tarzan film.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and associated characters, as long as only material from the first 16 books of the series (published in 1922 or earlier) is used. (Thankfully, this includes all the Baum books.) The famous ruby slippers date from the 1939 movie and thus have to be licensed (the originals in the books are silver).
Several of H. P. Lovecraft's characters, including Herbert West and Randolph Carter. Additionally, Lovecraft actually encouraged other writers to use the Cthulhu Mythos in other works, thus making the mythos in general, and such characters as Cthulhu, and Yog-Sothoth are essentially in the public domain. (Only "Dagon" (1919) and "Nyarlathotep" (1920) are undeniably public domain in the United States.)
Some research has suggested that later Lovecraft stories, produced during the time when copyright had to be renewed, were not renewed, making more characters out of copyright; this hasn't yet been tested in court. The Other Wiki has some information here.
Hmm... Lovecraft's later works are copyright of Arkham House, a publishing company started by Lovecraft's contemporaries August Derleth and Donald Wandrei. D&D tried to integrate the Cthulhu mythos and was almost sued by a rival company Arkham had sold the rights to... it's complicated.
They weren't sued so much as Chaosium demanded that TSR put a Shout-Out to them prominently on the credits page of Deities and Demigods, for TSR's use of both the Cthulhu and Elric universes (even though in the latter case, Michael Moorcock himself had given TSR his enthusiastic blessing to use his characters Chaosium license or no.) After the first printing, someone at TSR said "this is nuts — why are we giving free advertising to a competitor?" and decided to strip both the infringing material and the shout out from the book.
Additionally, all of Lovecraft's works became public domain in the European Union on January 1, 2008.
Zorroshould be public domain, since his first story was 1919 and he appeared in a silent film in 1920, but in 2005 Sony sent a cease-and-desist to a company, Sobini, which wanted to make a Zorro movie. Sobini sued Sony in 2005 to try to get a decision that Sobini could use the character, but the outcome of this suit, if any, remains unreported. What news can be found is confusing and contradictory (such as news articles claiming that Sobini "acquired the rights" to the public domain 1919 story).
Zorro Productions, Inc. claims that it "controls the worldwide trademarks and copyrights in the name, visual likeness and the character of Zorro."
In Sony Pictures Entertainment v. FIREWORKS ENTER. GROUP (2001) the court ruled that "the copyrights in "The Curse of Capistrano" and "The Mark of Zorro" lapsed in 1995 or before, the character Zorro has been in the public domain."
The first three Fu Manchu books were published prior to 1922 and are public domain in the USA; however, some characters are not public domain since they were introduced later, particularly his daughter Fah Lo Suee, who was only named in a later book. This has caused problems for Marvel Comics, who cannot reprint Master of Kung Fu, which uses not only Fu Manchu but other characters from the series. For instance, the martial arts hero Shang-Chi is a Marvel character and the son of Fu Manchu. Many stories refer to Shang's father being a Chinese crimelord but he is never seen or mentioned by name. Also, Fu Manchu is not in the public domain in Europe (Rohmer died in 1959), and Alan Moore could not name him in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
Except in the United Kingdom, as it is one of the few fictional works to have a (limited) perpetual copyright, owned by the Great Ormond Street Hospital. This was gifted to them by Barrie himself in his will and confirmed by an Act of Parliament. Because of this, Peter Pan will never be in the public domain in the UK for as long as the hospital exists.
Conan the Barbarian is public domain in the United Kingdom, and everywhere in the EU, since January 2007 (70 years after the death of Robert E. Howard). In Australia and Canada, all the Conan stories published by Howard in his lifetime had been in the public domain since 1987. In the USA, at least two-thirds of the Conan stories actually by Howard (as opposed to posthumous "collaborations" with L. Sprague de Camp and others) are also in the public domain, since the copyrights were not renewed. However, anyone planning on doing their own version of Conan must be careful not to upset the trademark holder, Conan Properties International, which has defended the mark very energetically.note As noted above, ads for Conan O'Brien's new show Conan contain the notice "CONAN is used with the permission of Conan Properties International LLC.". It should also be noted that many other aspects of the Conan setting (e.g. Red Sonja) are not from the original Howard stories and are still under copyright.
The first Lord Peter Wimsey novel, Whose Body?, is in the public domain in the US and Canada, but not in the UK or Europe.
Most, if not all, of G. K. Chesterton's characters are this, due to his publishing them in the nineteenth century. They're not often used for this purpose, but Father Brown has been known to have a cameo here and there.
All the books featured in the pioneering e-book endeavor The Gutenberg Project are, in theory, supposed to be in the public domain. Many of the examples listed above are in fact available though Gutenberg.
Just as with films (see above), there are many American-produced TV series that have fallen into public domain. Or, as the case may be, only selected episodes have. Examples include the '50s Dragnet series, Bonanza, many early episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction (most of its first season, in fact), and about a dozen episodes of the Dick Van Dyke Show. In some cases DVD and VHS releases of these episodes have to be re-edited to remove elements that are still in copyright, such as theme music.
Religion, Folklore, & Mythology
Characters from ancient Greek and Roman mythology and literature, such as Hercules, Achilles, Odysseus, Oedipus, Orpheus, as well as the various gods and goddesses. Norse Mythology is also used as a background for many stories, but less often than Greek and Roman myths.
God. In fact, pretty much all figures from religions that were founded before the 20th century. Still would probably be a bad idea to say that God looks shockingly like Morgan Freeman, or George Burns. Others include:
Superhero School Whateley Academy in the Whateley Universe has Circe as a teacher, and most of the Greek pantheon back from being sealed away, and in the bodies of teenaged mutants. It has also been visited by Sun Wu Kong (a particular headache for Bladedancer).
The entire point of Fanpro. All of the characters are public domain, and there's no canon besides what the fans create.
Despite the fact that Peter Anspach copyrighted his version of the Evil Overlord List, the truth is, anyone is free to use it in any way they want for one simple reason: Jack Butler, the owner of the other version of the Evil Overlord List (which is functionally identical to Anspach's) intentionally released the copyright on his list, making it public domain. Were Anspach actually to press a copyright claim on anyone (unlikely), all that need happen is point out that you're quoting Butler's list, not Anspach's, and suddenly Anspach's claim evaporates into the ether.
The webcomic Webcomic/Lightbringer was released into the public domain on September 20, 2013 - which includes the titular hero, associates, and Rogues Gallery.
Popeye entered the public domain in Europe as of 2009.
And while it'll be quite a few years before he goes public domain in the US, all of the original Fleischer cartoon serials have entered the public domain, as well as some of the later Famous Studios shorts.