In Hollywood, owning the movie rights to a character is often seen as a golden ticket to a multi-billion dollar franchise. It’s tough not to agree too, especially when you look at what Fox has done with 16 years worth of X-Men movies, Warner Bros.’ partnership with DC, or even Sony’s initial run of incredibly lucrative Spider-Man movies. For Marvel, they’ve made their buck by holding on to as many of their various heroes as possible, following years of haphazardly selling them off to the likes of Fox and Sony.
Turn toward the area of public domain though and we see a handful of popular characters that any studio has the right to come in and adapt themselves. The vast majority of them are from novels written decades ago, while others still, are as old as 150 years. What they all have in common is that no one studio owns their rights. Here are those characters.
We kick things off with an interesting and slightly ambiguous case. While technically Edgar Rice Burroughs’s original Tarzan of the Apes stories kicked into the public domain back in 2014, the estate of the late author has continued to contest the use of Tarzan himself.
That being so, the character technically belongs to to Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc. (ERB Inc.), but with a few caveats. First off, because both Dark Horse Comics and Disney came to an agreement with ERB Inc. for their respective depictions of Tarzan, they can use their own version of the character for whatever they want in the foreseeable future. Warner Bros. came to a similar agreement for 2016’s The Legend of Tarzan, although given the disappointing box office return, it seems unlikely that they’ll go for a second round.
2. Peter Pan
Disney’s 1953 Peter Pan may be the most recognizable version of the character we have today, but it’s also just one of many. Over the years, we’ve seen iterations from the likes of TriStar/Amblin (Hook), Warner Bros. (Pan), and Universal (Peter Pan). The story behind the rights to the character though is far more convoluted than it would seem on the surface. Back in 1911, original author J.M. Barrie curiously gifted the rights to Pan to a children’s hospital in London. Before those rights expired in 1987, the prime minister of the United Kingdom then sponsored legislation that granted the hospital a perpetual extension.
Copyright legislation passed in 1988 and further muddied the waters for Pan, making it so that uses of the character in the United States weren’t protected, even with the hospital’s permanent extension. Given that virtually all the world’s major movie studios are based in the U.S., this opened the floodgates for Hollywood, leading to a host of new standalone Peter Pans from a variety of sources.
3. Sherlock Holmes and John Watson
Ambiguous copyright situations are all too common across the board for seemingly public domain properties. Even Sherlock Holmes, a character that first appeared in 1888 is the subject of some dispute by the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who fought for years to keep the world’s greatest detective under their umbrella. In 2013, we finally got some clarity on the situation from an Illinois court ruling, described to us by The Guardian.
Under a new court ruling, you may write that Sherlock Holmes was a cocaine-addicted martial arts aficionado cohabiting occasionally at 221B Baker Street, with a friend called Dr. Watson. You may not, however, freely describe Dr. Watson’s own athletic background, the juicy fact of his second marriage, or the circumstances of Holmes’s retirement.
The specifics wade a bit into the weeds, but the short version tells us that any Holmes stories published before 1923 (read: a large majority of Doyle’s work) reside in the public domain. Ten Sherlock Holmes short stories published after 1923 though remain under copyright, hence the oddly specific off-limits details like Watson’s second marriage and Holmes’s retirement.
4. Alice (of Alice in Wonderland)
Ah finally, a straightforward case of “everybody’s allowed to use this character.” Lewis Carroll’s original Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland novel was first written in 1865, and was set to enter the public domain in 1912 before an extension kicked it down the road. It wasn’t until 1948 that Alice became fair game, and Disney wasted no time in taking full advantage with their animated classic releasing just three years later. Interestingly enough, the most significant remakes have also came to us courtesy of Disney, in the form of of the 2010 reboot directed by Tim Burton, as well as the 2016 sequel, Alice Through the Looking Glass.
Written in 1897, Bram Stoker’s original Dracula novel has long since passed into the public domain. If it were up to Universal though, the character would remain under their ownership. The studio even attempted to purchase exclusive rights to the iconic vampire, featuring him heavily in their horror films in the 1930s and ’40s. That all fell apart when it was revealed that Stoker himself hadn’t complied with U.S. copyright law for the original trademark, firmly placing Dracula in the public domain once and for all.
Universal has since purchased the rights to Abraham Van Helsing in 2006, in hopes of starting a full-on franchise for the character in the Hugh Jackman led Van Helsing. That franchise of course, never actually caught on, but the copyright on the vampire hunter remains.
6. Any character from Grimms’ Fairy Tales or Hans Christian Andersen
Here we have a well that’s been tapped by a host of studios throughout the last century. Because both Grimms’ Fairy Tales and the collected works of Hans Christian Andersen first appeared in the early to mid-1800s, they’ve long since passed into the public domain as a result. It’s a stable of characters that runs deep too, including (but not limited to) the Little Mermaid, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, Thumbelina, the Ugly Duckling, Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty.
Basically, a large swathe of Disney’s most iconic animated films in the 20th century were pulled straight from the public domain (which is ironic, given their infamously tight-fisted attempts to keep their own characters under strict copyright).
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