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Public Domain Character

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The Count has had many faces, some friendlier than others.note 

"God bless the public domain."
The Adventures of Dr. McNinja, on introducing Dracula

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 before 1929 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 yearsnote . The longest copyright term in the world is that of Mexico, in which since 2003, works do not enter the public domain until the author has been dead for 100 yearsnote . France also has 6 to 8-year copyright extensions for musical works published before 1920 and/or 1947, and a 30-year copyright extension for authors who died while serving during World Wars I and II, such as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

Many countries also follow the "rule of the shorter term", where if a work is in the public domain in its country of origin, it is also public domain in the other country.

Additionally, the copyright holder may choose to release a work prematurely into the Public Domain.

Most notably, the authors only have to be dead for 50 years for their works to enter the public domain in New Zealand—meaning that those of C. S. Lewis and Ian Fleming (died in 1963 and 1964) are no longer under copyright in that country. Canada is a party to a 2018 trade agreement that uses a minimum life-plus-70 term, and accordingly changed its law to that effect in 2022. However, this change was not made retroactive, meaning that the works of any author who died before 1972 (including Lewis and Fleming) are PD in Canada. Mexico is also a party to that agreement, in which its "life plus 100" term is preserved. In Australia, the work of any author who died before 1955 is public domain; the country changed from a "life plus 50" term to "life plus 70" in 2004, but also did not make the change retroactive. Similarly, in Japan, which changed from "life plus 50" to "life plus 70" in 2018 and didn't make this change retroactive, the work of any author who died before 1968 is public domain.

Compare Historical Domain Character, which are people from Real Life; and Literary Mash-Ups, in which entire public domain works are... erm, "improved". Also be wary of examples in general found in the wild as, despite all pretenses, many people don't know much about copyright law in general, and those that do, certainly don't know its many intricacies and legal interpretations. 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, in 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. An example regarding trademarks 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.

See also Public Domain Artifact for when this trope is focused on different artifacts and objects also under Public Domain, Landmark of Lore for locations used in a similar way, and Public Domain Canon Welding when this is done with entire settings.

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List of common public domain characters

    Folklore and Mythology 

Arabian Nights
The Brothers Grimm
Charles Perrault
Other Fairy Tales
Other Literature
  • The Ancient Mariner
  • Arsène Lupin in all countries outside the US, as author Maurice Leblanc died in 1941.note  In the US, any element of the series introduced before 1929.
  • Beowulf
  • Carmilla
  • Cthulhu, Herbert West, and many other characters of H.P. Lovecraft. Outside of the United States all his works are public domain, but his later works (after 1929) are in a grey area in the United States, where it's not known for sure if his stories were published with copywrite notice, and if they were whether they were renewed or not.note 
  • Don Quixote
  • Dracula
  • Frankenstein's Monster
  • Fu Manchu, in countries where the copyright term is "Life plus 60" or lower, plus any countries where the work of creators who died before 1960 is PD.note  In the US, any element of the series introduced before 1929. See the "Other public domain characters: Literature" folder for more details.
  • The Invisible Man
  • Heidi
  • Jekyll & Hyde
  • John Carter in countries with life plus 70 or lower, plus any countries where the work of creators who died before 1951 is PD.note  In the US, any element of the series introduced before 1929. However, not PD yet in Spain, which was "life plus 80" until 1987; since Edgar Rice Burroughs died in 1950, his works won't be PD there until 2031.
  • Kalevipoeg
  • Peter Pan, but only outside of the United Kingdom. See the "Other public domain characters: Literature" folder for more details.
  • Reynard the Fox
  • Rip Van Winkle
  • Robinson Crusoe
  • Sennentuntschi
  • Sherlock Holmes
  • Sweeney Todd
  • Tarzan — since Tarzan, like John Carter, was created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, his copyright status is the same as that of John Carter. However, the trademark is another story. See "Other public domain characters: Literature".
  • Sítio do Picapau Amarelo, in countries with life plus 70 or lower, as the author died in 1948. Also PD in countries where the work of authors who died before 1949 is PD.note  In the US, any element of the series introduced before 1929.
  • Zorro, in countries with life plus 60 or lower, plus any countries where the work of creators who died before 1959 is PD. (Among these: Canada, Japan, and NZ.) In the US, any element of the series introduced before 1929. See "Other public domain characters: Literature".
  • Winnie-The-Pooh and Friends, except for the one's made by Disney.


Western Animation

Other public domain characters in media

Please note: A character may be in the public domain, but still trademarked, especially if it's an advertising mascot.

    Comic Books 

    Comic Strips 
  • Krazy Kat (as well as all original strips) became public domain in most countries (especially Europe, apart from Spain) in 2015, as the strip's author George Herriman died in 1944.
  • Little Nemo — at least the character itself and the comic, not the movie.
  • Popeye:
    • The character of Popeye (though not the films, TV shows, and other media based on him) became public domain in most countries, including almost all of the EU, in 2009, since the original creator, Elzie Segar, died in 1938. Spain had to wait until 2019. Popeye became PD even earlier in Australia, Canada, Japan, Mexico, and NZ, all of which used "life plus 50" (or, in the case of Mexico, life plus 30). While Australia, Japan, and Mexico later extended their terms, those changes weren't made retroactive; Canada's change to "life plus 70" didn't occur until more than 80 years after Segar's death. However, Popeye remains under copyright in the US. When Popeye first appeared in the Thimble Theatre comic strip (later renamed for Popeye) in January 1929, Segar was employed by the strip's owner, King Features Syndicate. As a result, Popeye is treated as a "work for hire" under US copyright law, and is protected for 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter. In turn, this means that the character will not pass into the public domain in the US until (at least) 2025. In addition, Popeye is often the source of Lawyer-Friendly Cameo appearances — thinly-veiled muscular sailors have appeared in both DC and Marvel comics. Ironically, Disney could not clear the rights in time to have Popeye appear in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. This, after they co-produced The Movie of Popeye with Paramount.
    • And while we'll have to wait until next year in 2025 before Popeye 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.
    • On the other hand, Popeye's love interest Olive Oyl, also created by Segar for Thimble Theatre, entered the public domain in the US in 1995 — 14 years (24 in Spain) before she entered the public domain in Europe. She debuted with the comic strip in December 1919, a little more than 9 years before the Popeye character. Under US copyright law at that time, copyrights lasted a maximum of 75 years, whether or not they were works for hire. Although the US later passed a copyright term extension, it specifically refused to restore copyright for works whose terms had ended. That being said, however, only pre-1929 elements of Olive Oyl are public domain in the US.
  • The Yellow Kid first appeared in 1895.
  • Gnorm Gnat and most of the Jon comic strips made by Jim Davis, since they were released without a copyright notice, as copyrights were required to be written down on a work prior to 1977. The Jon comics, of course, also include the oldest version of Garfield.note 
  • Ally Sloper
  • Billy Bounce
  • Buster Brown
  • Ella Cinders
  • Happy Hooligan
  • Harold Teen
  • The Katzenjammer Kids
  • Mr. Jack and his supporting cast.
  • Mutt and Jeff
  • Winnie Winkle.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • See Public Domain Feature Films for more.
  • King Kong, sort of. But It's a Long Story. Read The Other Wiki's take on it here.
  • Most of Charlie Chaplin's films are public domain, as is his Tramp character.
  • Laurel and Hardy.
  • Most of Buster Keaton’s films have entered the public domain including The General (1926).
  • Most of Harold Lloyd’s films have entered the public domain including his popular character The Kid/Harold featured in films such as The Freshman and The Kid Brother.
  • Charlie Chan.
  • It's a Wonderful Life was Vindicated by Cable as a result of falling into public domain.
    • It's a Wonderful Life may technically be in the public domain — but you won't find it on any network other than NBC (or its co-owned cable channels) 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, Paramount, its successor company, is permitted to control the film as though it was the copyright holder. The only elements of the film that are arguably PD today are the visual images.
  • Visit any Walmart 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.
  • Most of the old movies featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000 are in public domain, which is how they were easily used on the show.
  • There was a book published in the 1970s called "50,000 motion pictures in the public domain" which took all of the copyright registrations for films starting around 1912 up through about 1975 or so, and dropped the ones for which copyright renewals were made. While a lot of these films either no longer exist—Irving Thalberg, as head of MGM, had a lot of films rendered (melted down) to recover their silver content—or have been lost, and some may be based on scripts or books that are still copyrighted, there are still a lot of films that are out of copyright because of failure to renew back when renewals were mandatory.
  • Night of the Living Dead (1968) technically never was properly under U.S. copyright, due to an editing-room flub that removed the film's copyright label along with its original Night of the Flesh-Eaters title. This opened the door for Romero-style zombies to become as much of a stock horror monster as vampires or werewolves.
  • Seymour, Audrey II, and the others from The Little Shop of Horrors. But only the versions of them from the 1960 film, and not the musical based off of it or the second movie based off the musical.
  • The zombie-using aliens and others from Plan 9 from Outer Space.
  • Pitch the demon, Lupita, Santa's helpers, and the depictions of Merlin and Santa himself from Santa Claus (1959).
  • Santa Claus Conquers the Martians: The emotionally-stunted green Martians.
  • The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari: Doctor Caligari, Cesare, and the rest.
  • Metropolis: The Machine Man, Freder, Rotwang, and all the other inhabitants of Metropolis.
  • Universal Horror:
    • In addition to his literary version (see the Literature section), the 1925 version of the Phantom of the Opera and related characters. The 1925 film has actually been PD in the US since 1954 because Universal failed to renew the copyright back when that was required.
    • Ditto for The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), right down to Universal failing to renew copyright, meaning that it's been PD in the US since 1952.
    • The Cat and the Canary had also notably lapsed back in 1955 as Universal had failed to renew its rights making it public domain in the US.
    • The Man Who Laughs enters the public domain in 2024 in the US with the titular character having notably served as the visual inspiration for the DC Comics supervillain The Joker.
  • Nosferatu: Count Orlok.
  • Vietnam veteran Andy Crocker of The Ballad of Andy Crocker.
  • The Giant Gila Monster.
  • McLintock and the others from, well, McLintock!
  • Rin Tin Tin.
  • Esther, Norman, and the others from A Star Is Born (1937). (But only the original, none of the remakes.)
  • Walter Paisley who would go on to become a recurring character for Dick Miller in numerous Corman films and even a few of Joe Dante’s movies.

    Folklore and Mythology 


    Live-Action TV 
  • Just as with films (see above), there are many American-produced TV series that have fallen into the 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.
  • Most of the episodes of One Step Beyond (1959), a supernatural anthology predecessor to such shows as The Twilight Zone (1959) and The Outer Limits (1963). The show purports to be based on real-life events, and itself often uses Historical Domain Characters.
  • Captain Z-Ro, a reclusive scientist that would use his ZX-99 machine to observe various points in time, and, when necessary, send his assistant Jet back in time to make sure that history unfolded according to how it was originally recorded.

  • Darwin's Soldiers author LettuceBacon&Tomato explicitly released every one of his characters except Dr. Shelton into the public domain. This presumably includes Shelton's anti-matter duplicate who possesses all of the original's memories, meaning it'd be quite easy to bypass the actual Shelton's copyright.

    Visual Novel 
  • All of the characters from Morenatsu were designed anonymously by different artists during early development on 2Chan, leading them to be part of the public domain.

  • Lightbringer: All of the characters and stories in the series were released into the public domain by its creator, Linkara on September 20, 2013.
  • 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.
  • Jack author David Hopkins released all of the characters he created into the public domain as of January 16, 2021. This, however, does not apply to characters owned by others who have appeared in the comic, such as Skye Bluedeer and Reckonin.

    Web Original 
  • The Free Universe collects many public domain heroes and characters and sets up templates for modern writers to use them.
  • The fears of The Fear Mythos (including The Rake), except the Slender Man. See here for more details.
  • The entire point of Fan Pro. 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.
  • Inglip will smite anyone trying to copyright him.
  • All the books featured in the pioneering e-book endeavor The Gutenberg Project are, in theory, supposed to be in the public domain (with the exception of a few for which the creators have specifically given permission). Many of the examples listed above are in fact available through Gutenberg.

    Western Animation 

Media that uses many public domain characters

    Anime and Manga 
  • Record of Ragnarok: Many of its characters are pulled from both history, mythology and folklore most notably Norse, Greek, Hindu, Shinto, Buddhist, Egyptian and Abrahamic pantheons.
  • Rosengarten Saga: Many of its characters are derived from either mythology or folklore such as Siegfried, Ali Baba, Beowulf and King Arthur.
  • Sgt. Frog: Grays type aliens, Flatwood monsters and eventually Chupacabras all appear through the series.

    Comic Books 
A number of public domain Golden Age superhero characters have been 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 Comics Golden 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 Retraux Affectionate Parody, with Golden Age-style stories, issues the size of Golden Age comics rather than modern comics, and even vintage ads.
  • During that same time, Erik Larsen introduced the Golden Age hero Daredevil and his supporting cast, a gang of young boys called The Little Wise Guys, as recurring cast members in The Savage Dragon. His appearance was identical to the Daredevil who appeared in Project Superpowers, but unlike his PS counterpart, who was mute, Daredevil could talk. The PS version also was known as "The Death-Defying 'Devil", presumably to avoid confusion with Marvel Comics' Daredevil.
  • 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.
  • Another odd use of several Nedor characters was in Adventures Into Darkness, by Kenneth Hite, a Tabletop RPG supplement published in multiple versions with game details for different rule systems. The conceit of this work was that in a parallel universe, H. P. Lovecraft lived a few years longer, landed a writing job with Nedor at one point, and merged several characters and ideas from his own work into the Nedor universe. So it's a Cosmic Horror/Golden Age comics setting book with Lovecraftian and Nedorian elements. Oddly enough, it works.
  • 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.
  • Gene Luen Yang's and Sonny Liew's The Shadow Hero is a Revival of the obscure Golden Age character the Green Turtle, who appeared in a few issues of Blazing Comics and may have been the first Asian-American superhero.
  • Jack Staff ran into trouble early on by assuming that the 1950s British comics supervillain the Spider was public domain. He wasn't, but fortunately the rightsholders were amused by the comic and allowed the character to continue to appear as long as he was no longer explicitly named as "the Spider". All the comic's many subsequent revivals of characters from older British comics were Captains Ersatz.
  • A non-superhero one, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen brings together many Victorian and Edwardian literary characters (although, as it moves through the 20th century in later volumes, it increasingly features Lawyer-Friendly Cameos of characters who are in copyright).
  • Marvel Comics uses various characters from the public domain most notably Thor and various figures from Norse Mythology as well as various other Gods and Goddesses from various pantheons such as Hercules.
  • DC Comics similar to their famous competitor also uses numerous figures from various worldly mythologies most notably pulling from Greek Mythology for the character of Wonder Woman such as with her famous foe Ares

    Fan Works 
  • Child of the Storm:
    • Dracula is mentioned, and he appears in the sequel, Ghosts of the Past, as part of the Big Bad Ensemble, being the Arc Villain of Bloody Hell.
    • King Arthur, Merlin, and the rest of the Knights of the Round Table (heavily influenced, if not outright based on the Merlin (2008) version, though with some significant mythic twists).
  • Life After Hayate has an In-Universe subversion. The Wolkenritter's exploits from Ancient Belka's times were so infamous that they're still part of the popular culture of the Administrated Worlds, making them go-to villains in innumerable fictional works, many of them still available for purchase or in-production. Chrono realized that once the Wolkenritter became naturalized citizens of the TSAB, the unauthorized use of their likeness was now a crime and entitled them to punitive damages. Which is legalese for "a lot of people owe them some cash".

  • American Gods uses various figures from Abrahamic, Akan, Egyptian and Norse Mythologies.
  • Anno Dracula: What if Dracula was real, and Mycroft Holmes was running the response team? And that's just the start...
  • The Crew of the Copper-Colored Cupids features H.G. Wells's Martians as a recurring background element, has given guest appearances to Sherlock Holmes and most of the classic Monster Mash, regularly features Jenny Everywhere, and more.
  • There are many "Sherlock Holmes versus..." novels that pit him against Dracula, Mr Hyde, Cthulhu, or other public domain monsters.
  • Extraordinary Adventures Of The Athena Club has this in spades, drawing characters from a lot of Victorian literature including Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, Camilla, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Island of Doctor Moreau, Frankenstien and more.
  • Good Omens uses various figures from Abrahamic Mythology including God, Satan and the Antichrist as well as the names of various Demons and Angels.
  • Nyaruko: Crawling with Love!: Uses Nyarlathotep, the Crawling Chaos, Cthugha, the Burning One, Hastur, the Unspeakable One, and other Moe Anthropomorphism versions of monstrosities from the Cthulhu Mythos as its main characters.
  • Prester John and John Mandeville in Dirge for Prester John.

    Live-Action TV 
  • The Secrets of Isis has the goddess of Egyptian Mythology as the title character. Considering the series is spin-off of the TV adaptation of Shazam! (1974), DC Comics was eventually able to adapt her into the The DCU with relatively little modification to be the wife of Black Adam.
  • Penny Dreadful utilizes multiple characters from 19th century Victorian literature for a story between a band of adventurers and misfits fighting Satan and his disciples.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Adventures Into Darkness: The conceit of this work is that, in a parallel universe, H. P. Lovecraft lived a few years longer, landed a writing job with Nedor at one point, and merged several characters and ideas from his own work into the Nedor universe. The result it's a Cosmic Horror/Golden Age comics setting book with Lovecraftian and Nedorian elements.
  • In Nomine: While many characters are original creations for the setting, many others are derived from the public domain. Some come from scripture, several demons originate from medieval occultism, and a few come from more recent sources — the angel Israfel comes from a poem by Edgar Allan Poe, for instance.

    Video Games 

    Visual Novel 


    Western Animation 


Video Example(s):


Sherlock Martin

Martin wakes up as the great detective Sherlock Martin.

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