One of the most famous series of graphic novels in recent years has been Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Most people probably only recall the, well, horrific movie version of the story starring Sean Connery and a whole lot of terrible CGI, along with an absurd car chase through Venice.
Think about that for a second. Why on Earth would you put a movie anywhere near Venice and then have the big action sequence be a car chase? Anyway, that’s neither here nor there.
Have you ever wondered how Moore happened to choose his rather eclectic group to make up the League? To refresh your memory, it includes Allan Quartermain, Dr. Jekyll, Captain Nemo, Mina Harker, the Invisible Man, and in the movie, Tom Sawyer and Dorian Gray. Well it’s really pretty simple: all of those characters are free to use, because they are all in the public domain. Of course they aren’t the only famous characters you could legally put into any novel you’re working on right now. In fact, you would probably be stunned to realize just how many classic characters are free for you to use in any way you see fit.
The list of public domain characters is pretty extensive and, in a lot of cases, unexpected. Sherlock Holmes and his nemesis Moriarty, along with Alice (of Wonderland fame), Huck Finn, Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula and Van Helsing, Robin Hood, Zorro, everyone in the Wizard of Oz, Cthulhu, Robinson Crusoe, Peter Pan, Beowulf, Don Quixote, Conan the Barbarian, Aladdin, Sinbad (the sailor, not the comedian), Tarzan and, oh yeah, every single character Shakespeare ever created are all in the public domain.
Characters enter the public domain when their creators let the copyright expire, which obviously happened with so many of these characters because they existed so long before copyright actually existed that the people who created them didn’t even have a chance to nail down the intellectual property and private ownership of any of them. After all, it’s not like Mark Twain was writing in a time when this was really a strong possibility.
And now that’s all your potential gain, because you can publish an erotic fan fiction starring Macbeth and Dr. John Watson and there’s not a thing anyone can do about it. But, you know, maybe don’t? Because it’d be really, super weird.