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legal Some characters that will soon enter the public domain.

Nate North

Business Member
Public Domain stuff is tricky. A lot of people go this route, to bypass licensing fees, and start with some built in name recognition. There are some cases where it worked out pretty well, most notably with Sherlock Holmes, Robinson Crusoe, The Three Musketeers, Jane Austin's novels, etc.

I read through the list, and I'm not sure I could see a way to use any of these. Not to be contrarian, just thinking out loud.

1. I have a rule never to make a worse version of a product that already exists. So If WB makes a 300 million dollar Batman movie, I couldn't imagine why someone would want to watch my 2 million dollar version of that.

2. A lot of the drive to use PD stuff is to have that built in name recognition. The problem is that by the time something has gone into the PD, that name recognition is typically almost evaporated. It varies case by case, but in general, it's an avoidable pitfall. A good example is Edgar Rice Boroughs character "John Carter of Mars". It's pretty obvious what happened here. A Disney executive that was born in 1925 grew up reading the novels, very popular at the time. That person perceived the character and name as famous. It took 50 years to rise through the ranks and become a top suit, and then once able to call the shots, he pitched a cost saving measure where several million in licensing fees could be avoided by using a now PD character, that was "world famous" in his or her youth. So they made a 300 million dollar movie, based on a PD license, and saved 3 million vs licensing a character that was famous in a recent decade. Since the film was targeted at younger audiences, name recognition was virtually non existent, and the movie, which was made for around 270 million dollars, lost 200 of it. That 3 million dollars in savings, translated into 200 million in losses.

3. There is also an issue with the strong points of many of these IPs being already "used up". Let's look at the numerous reboots of Sherlock as a case in point. So every few years someone launches a new SH movie or series. Sometimes it works, it's one of the better PD properties. Out of the 100 or so that have been made, most retread about 75% of the same ground, with the original writing providing most of the worthwhile content. I call this the "soylent green" problem. That other 25% is typically made of various "modernization" tactics. Pop politics, trending technologies, etc. It's 221b baker street, but now he has a cell phone. It's not that you can't be creative within such a structure, but most of these productions are not.

I'd say there would be a much better case to be made for PD use if it weren't for large corporations already exploiting them to maximum effect. I could probably make a film that presented AC Doyle's work in a fresh and interesting new way, if people with literally billions of dollars hadn't already done that. As far as Buck Rogers, or Flash Gordon, or similar, I think that bringing new life and excitement to these would require a large budget, and might have lackluster results.

If one was looking for an existing fiction to build on, and many are, a decent place to look is in literature that was high quality, but perhaps underappreciated. A decade ago I licensed a work from Harry Harrison, and ended up becoming friends with him. There were a lot of great qualities to his work, but it had never been big enough in the states to warrant extreme licensing fees. I spent about 5 grand to license a book to work from, and while it didn't have much current name recognition, the bones of a great story were there. At the end of the day, I think people generally overestimate the value of slipstreaming, and you can see so many examples of a brand new character or IP outperforming a lesser work featuring a known IP.