We’ve all read “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. After all, high schools all over the country assign it. Many people read the book and put it down, never remembering anything but the name and cover. Others find their imagination captured. How else can you explain the sheer abundance of Nick and Gatsby fanfiction on the internet? Of course, none of that could be published. The book is copyrighted, preventing writers from profiting off of Fitzgerald’s work. Or, at least, it was.
On Jan. 1, 2021, “The Great Gatsby” entered the public domain. This means that people can “use, reuse, or build upon [the work]...without paying a fee” according to what Jennifer Jenkins, a Duke University Law Professor, told NPR (1). So, now the stories that were once relegated to the internet can be published and sold in a Barnes and Noble.
In fact, a few days after this copyright was lifted, a prequel titled “Nick” was published by Michael Farris Smith. It has a similar cover to the original, and finds the character fighting in World War I. That is certainly a different setting than the high-class houses that the original book was primarily set in, but here’s the thing: you don’t have to stop there.
With “Gatsby” in the public domain, what’s stopping someone from publishing a story where Gatsby and Nick fight aliens in space or battle dragons in Middle Earth? As long as you don’t use characters that still have a copyright on them, your imagination is the limit.
So, what other characters are in the public domain? As you can probably guess if you read the title of this article, Sherlock Holmes and Dracula are. Both are characters from the nineteenth century, so this shouldn’t really be any surprise. A few years ago, “Sherlock Holmes vs. Cthulhu: The Adventure of the Deadly Dimensions” by Lois H. Gresh was released. Not only does it have Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous creation fight H.P. Lovecraft’s sinister Elder God Cthulhu, but it is also the first of a series. Clearly, these kinds of bonker pairings have an appeal.
However, here’s where things get tricky. While I could write a story using characters and locations in the public domain, I couldn’t base them on depictions that are still copyrighted. For example, Frank L. Baum's “The Wizard of Oz” is in the public domain. However, the famous film based off of this book is not in the public domain.
So, you can’t have a character wear ruby slippers in your Oz story. Why? The slippers in the original book were silver. The ruby slippers in the 1939 classic are exclusive to that movie. Further, if writing a Cinderella story, make sure to avoid any references specific to the Disney movie. As long as none of your characters start saying “Bippity Boppity Boo”, you should be fine.
For the record, “The Great Gatsby” wasn’t the only work that fell into the public domain at the beginning of the year. Books by Virginia Woolf and Agatha Christie held the same fate as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s—so did recordings by Duke Ellington and Bessie Smith. Movies by silent film stars Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd can now be used by whoever wants to use them. If anyone feels that they can build off of something that came before, using works in the public domain can help with that. So, have Nick and Gatsby fight in a gladiatorial arena against Cthulhu. Why not get it published?