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On the Public Domain: How to Use Free Art in Your Writing

Yesterday I talked about the value of free art. And in the context of our ongoing discussion about copyright, I’m sure you’ve got some questions about the earning potential of free art, but you’re going to have to hold onto those questions for another week or two.

For now, I want to talk about the value of free art to you as an artist. Specifically, I want to give you some tips on using the public domain in your writing.


Let me address the easy stuff first. By far the most common use of public domain art in new creative works is illustrative.

You see this every time you pick up a novel in Barnes and Noble and find a classic painting staring up at you as cover art. Those classics have tremendous marketing value because they’re so well-known, and they’re free. You know the accounting execs love that.

Of course, if you’re a blogger (and you should be), you’re probably already in the habit of using “free” photos to enhance your posts’ visual appeal. One of the best sources for these images is Flickr, which has made Creative Commons a surprisingly widespread phenomenon.

Now, Creative Commons isn’t the same thing as public domain. It places restrictions, withholding commercial rights or requiring an often unwieldy attribution, but it’s a type of free art, and it serves to remind us just how powerful access to art can be — for other artists, as well as for the public.

And that access extends to art in other media, too. There’s a wealth of music in the public domain, archival video footage that has proven hugely beneficial to documentary filmmakers, and — let us not forget — all the great classics of literature.

You can use textual illustrations in your writing every bit as much as photographs, excerpting sections of classic texts as anchor points within your stories, or spicing up a character by having him quote fifteenth century lyrics at random.

Back in that first post on copyright, when I talked about winning a writing contest to become lead writer for a videogame, I mentioned that my winning piece directly recreated the plot of an old Arthurian legend. If you’re well-read, that can be one of the best ways to use public domain prose in your writing: borrowing archaic material to breathe new life into it.

Derivative Work

When you get to that point, you’re rarely making a direct copy of the text, but one major aspect of copyright law is the protection of “derivative works” — so if I create a compelling universe with a compelling cast of characters, copyright law gives me the opportunity to sue anyone else who tries to write a sequel.

There is a Fair Use exception for “transformative works” because, in the eyes of the law, copyright is meant to encourage precisely that production of new art. But, as I’ve said before, the problem with Fair Use is that it’s incredibly vague — it can be a legal defense, but you’re going to have to risk going to court to figure out if your new satiric take on Batman is a transformative work that’ll earn you a fortune in merchandising rights…or if it’s a derivative that’ll cost you $300,000 and a possible prison sentence.

You can avoid all that worry by building your work on a foundation in the public domain. Batman and Mickey Mouse may be off-limits, but Robin Hood and the White Rabbit are fair game.

Let’s Get Derivative (Creative Writing Exercise)

The lovely Kelley, writing at a coffee shopI’m currently working on a project that’s a scene-for-scene remake of Ivanhoe, set in a classic sci-fi future and packed with enough action-adventure to make Michael Bay blush.

It’s a viable project, too. The story is compelling, the characters are engaging, and the set pieces could easily make good material for a big budget summer blockbuster.

Not only that…but it’s new. I’m not writing a single new plot element, but the story is an entirely new thing. I’ve invested real creative effort in the conversion, in finding the points that will best resonate with modern audiences, and I’m telling it all in a language more familiar to today’s readers than the clumsy “English” that old dude wrote in.

Try it for yourself. Pick a favorite classic, maybe a Bible story or a fairy tale (Moses and the Brothers Grimm are all well past life-plus-seventy at this point), and imagine how you’d make it into something your own.

It’s a fun exercise, but it’s also been the source of some incredible literature over time. One of the classics you might consider borrowing from is Milton’s Paradise Lost (one of my favorite fantasy author’s, Roger Zelazny, used that heavily as a source for The Chronicles of Amber), but that poem was itself a retelling of the Genesis story. Half of Shakespeare’s works were already popular stories before he put them in plays (and the other half were recorded history).

What story would you rewrite? Do you already have one in mind? Tell me about it in the comments. I promise not to steal it. I don’t have the time. As soon as I’m done with Ivanhoe I’ve got a modernization of The Aeneid lined up, and then I need to start doing my research on The Three Musketeers and Robin Hood. And that’s not even counting the 22 books still unwritten in my long-running sci-fi cop drama romance series based on the story of Martin Luther and the Ninety-Five theses….

The public domain is a treasure trove for writers, and it’s free for the taking. Spend some time getting to know it.

Image credit Julie V. All links to Amazon products in this article (mainly book titles) are affiliate links.

5 Responses to “On the Public Domain: How to Use Free Art in Your Writing”

  1. Shirls says:

    Hi Aaron
    Just exactly how old does the work need to be?

    • Aaron Pogue says:

      That’s tricky. It’s currently life of the original creator plus seventy years, but that’s only been in effect for a couple decades. Prior to that, I think it was fourteen years plus eligibility for a single fourteen year extinction, but the term might have been considerably longer.

      Either way, I know it wasn’t much longer than “life of the author,” so right now you’re probably safe using anything published before, say, 1900. I’d guess anything before 1920 or maybe even 1930, but please don’t take that as legal advice (or, for that matter, anything else I say).

      The problem is that, going forward, it’s going to go from “anything that’s at least a century old is probably safe” to “anything that’s two hundred years old may be safe — if the original creator was old enough when it was published.”

  2. I’ve often considered doing a retelling of Aladdin and the magical lamp. The disney movie just doesn’t give the real story justice, and Jasmine is still one of my favorite Disney princesses. And how does Aladdin go from a lazy brat to a military leader and loved by all of China? The character development in this story could be really interesting.

    • Aaron Pogue says:

      I would love to see a good retelling of Aladdin. Because you’re right about the Disney movie — and it’s still my favorite Disney movie. (I’ve always been a fan of the lovable rogue character.)

      Make it happen, Jessie! I can promise you at least one enthusiastic reader.

  3. Courtney Cantrell says:

    Would anyone be interested in reading the first chapter of Sense and Sensibility and Vampires? And if the answer is yes, then where shall I post it?