If you’re feeling like your creative juices have dried up, there’s no need to panic. As of January 1, 2020, there are a bunch of new stories to legally steal because their copyright has expired. Currently, any play, novel, film or song published between 1923 and 1977 has a 95-year-long copyright, so as of 2020, anything from 1924 or before is free for the pilfering.
If thievery isn’t your thing, consider the words of T.S. Elliott: “Good writers borrow, great writers steal.” So if you do steal a character or story, at least you’re in great company.
Have a great true story or script adapted from the Public Domain? Check out ScreenCraft’s Public Domain Competition!
If using a public domain property still doesn’t sound like an amazing opportunity, take a moment to consider Disney. The Mouse House has literally made billions of dollars making animated and live-action films based on public domain stories. Frozen (2013) was inspired by Hans Christian Anderson’s Ice Queen (1845) and Aladdin (2019 and 1992) was based on One Thousand and One Nights (1706). But don’t worry, the public domain list isn’t all fairy tales.
Here are some of our favorite public domain properties from 1924.
If mysteries are your thing, Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit and all the short stories from Poirot Investigates are now available to rewrite, remake and mash up into short or feature films. Why not follow in Dr. Who’s footsteps and make Poirot a woman (perhaps played by Phoebe Waller Bridge?) If you’re not into gender-bending, perhaps take some technical notes. Christie was a master at setting up red herrings by giving her characters mysterious backgrounds, so this is your opportunity to poach from the best.
If action/adventure is your thing, consider Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Land That Time Forgot and Tarzan and the Ant Men. What if Tarzan was living in modern-day Central Park in New York City? Tarzan is such a rich, beloved character, there’s no end to what you could create with him. Or maybe Tarzan and the Ant Men are an ‘80s cover band, singing the songs of Adam Ant. Okay, maybe that’s not a good idea, but there are so many possibilities.
If comedy is your thing, there are now three Noel Coward plays available for you to update and make your own: The Vortex, Hay Fever and Easy Virtue. All three plays have previously been adapted for the screen, but now’s your chance to write your own unique take on the story without having to secure the rights.
If crime stories are your thing, The Rat, Ivor Novello’s play (and later, film), is about an upper-class French woman seeking thrills by dating a known criminal. An update could be a story that starts in Beverly Hills but takes the audience to the world of a dangerous gang operating out of Compton.
If you’re into science fiction, you might like The Fatal Eggs by Mikhail Bulgakov, about a scientist who accidentally breeds hundreds of overly aggressive snakes, ostriches and crocodiles. If you go with this story, consider giving it a spicier title so readers won’t think it’s about a bad omelet.
Another very compelling reason to adapt a public domain property is because that property has been tested and proven to be profitable with a built-in audience. It’s been entertaining readers or audiences for 95 years and if it’s recognizable enough, it will get more attention from producers than your unknown spec, especially if you are an unknown writer. The book Billy Budd, Sailor by Herman Melville is now public domain and ripe for a modern adaptation. To write a script with the bones of Melville would be something many people would be interested in reading.
Finding the perfect public domain property for you will take some research, reading and movie viewing, but it could be just the thing you need to jumpstart your writing career. Keep in mind, however, most people don’t want to read a script that’s a literal adaptation of Edith Wharton’s Old Maid. You don’t have to set it in modern-day, but you do have to make it your own. Maybe instead of setting the story in the Civil War, it could be set during the Vietnam War. Whatever you decide, make sure it feels fresh and would appeal to a highly savvy, modern audience.
Another thing to consider is that other countries may have different copyright laws than the United States, so do your research, especially if you want to write a feature film to play worldwide. When in doubt, consult a lawyer.
To see a larger list of available properties click HERE.
Shanee Edwards graduated from UCLA Film School with an MFA in Screenwriting and is currently the film critic for SheKnows.com. She recently won the Next MacGyver television writing competition to create a TV show about a female engineer. Her pilot, Ada and the Machine, is currently in development with America Ferrera’s Take Fountain Productions. You can follow her on Twitter: @ShaneeEdwards