Writing 101: Public Domain (Copyrights Don't Last For Ever)

So, I ran out of TV shows on Netflix and found myself watching "Just One of the Guys" the other day. It's a gender-swapping story featuring an actress named Joyce Hyser in the lead. I've also seen the same movie starring Amanda Bynes, Cameron Diaz and countless others. Some plots are repeated, and re-repeated, a hundred times or more. Have you ever wondered why? It's because copyrights expire. 

Much Ado About Plagiarism 

Seriously, the story of the girl who dresses like a boy and falls in love with this new boy she meets is as old as time. Well, that's not precisely true -- but it is as old as the Elizabethan era. I know that because Shakespeare is the one who wrote that story. He called it "Twelfth Night." 

And even if you didn't know it, you've watch the play many, many times. I know you know you've seen "Romeo and Juliet" a thousand times. Truly, it's one of the oldest and most often-repeated plots. You can find it in "West Side Story," "Warm Bodies" and any other story where a girl and a guy from opposite ends of a battleground wind up falling in love with each other. 

If you like one of Shakespeare's plots and you want to use it to write your own new story, go ahead and do it. There's a good reason why his work is so often copied and repeated: it's free to do so. You see, Shakespeare has been dead for a number of years. And after a certain number of years, all of your copyrights are going to expire, too.

So which Jane Austen plot would you like to repeat? Which Greek myth do you believe should be revamped? Because as of now, all those books are in the public domain -- and that makes them free for all. 

Public Domain

Copyrights expire. I don't know exactly why they do, but they do. Once the author of that work dies, it becomes public domain after a mere 70 years. So not only is Shakespeare's work totally fair game, so is anything ever written by Mark Twain. 

Not having a name can't protect your work, either. Anonymous works become public domain 120 years after the date of creation. So that's why you keep seeing Shakespeare over and over, and why "Pride and Prejudice" is re-done every couple of years. You can use public domain works to your advantage (I use it to fill my Kindle with stuff I probably won't read but it looks impressive) by re-using some of those classic plots and circumstances. And you can take some joy, perhaps, in the idea that maybe your books will repeated a few hundred years from now, too.

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