Comics Creators

Public Domain Ethics


I’m considering re-working a book in the public domain but I realize this is an ethical minefield, especially after @Miqque’s Sherlock Holmes post.

Now, whilst it’s not something that’s as widely known or loved as Holmes, it does have some very die hard fans and they will probably go apeshit with what I do to it, but I’m kind of counting on that or I wouldn’t go out of my way to make the time to do it in the first place.

Having said that, I’m interested to know what you all think, I suppose because my other, irl friends would be busy with not having a clue what I’m actually talking about, bless them.

I’m not saying what the book is just yet because I don’t want to taint anyone’s ideas of what is and isn’t ethical.

So yeah… Thoughts?


Can’t be any worse than this rewrite. :wink:,204,203,200.jpg


Well, its fans certainly aren’t that die hard.

Edit: It’s extremely difficult for me to write Die Hard without capitalizing the words.


I don’t think it is, the laws are there and have been generously extended over recent years. Once it is PD do what the hell you want, if people don’t like it then it won’t get very far.

Airboy by James Robinson is a wonderful and fantastic abuse of public domain that I’m very thankful for. :smile:


Airboy was fabulous. Definitely one of my books of 2015.


On the morning that James Joyce’s work came into the Public Domain, I joked that I was going to write The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man and Zombies

I have done two of adaptations of Classic public domain works in the past. One was a dramatisation of The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was fairly faithful to the book in only 4 15 minute scenes. It was 85% Wilde, 10% of me remixing the text and 5% of me adding jokes to see if I could get them by the Wilde scholars. It is a thankless task. If it worked well, Oscar Wilde got all the credit. If it didn’t, I got all the blame…For various reasons I won’t go into here, it didn’t work out.

I subsequently did a far looser modern day version of A Christmas Carol, where it was 90% me and I used the structure of the Dickens novel (which very helpfully has a prologue, 3 acts and an epilogue). I used the original Dickens narration though as a voiceover which worked well. And I may have remixed it as a romantic comedy…

I also have a little piece I’ve done with the public domain character The Black Terror (as used variously by Alan Moore in Tom Strong and by Dynamite in Project Superpowers).

I can understand the question of ethics as there is no legal impediment. Given that we live in a world with Android Karenina and Dorian Gray porn, I would be inclined to tell you to work away and enjoy yourself. I’m not entirely in favour when childrens characters are reinterpreted in a more adult milieu like Lost Girls, but that’s a personal view.


I’m going to have to check that out.

Both of those sound pretty cool. A Christmas Carol is the sort of story that transfers well when you transpose it’s elements because the plot is both simple enough to understand but original enough to stand out. I reworked it myself as an idea for a Future Shock if I ever get the chance to write for Tharg.

Yes, I’m very much talking about the ethics of rebuilding someone else’s work as opposed to the legal issues. If I go ahead with it I will be attaching a price to it, not so much to make money as to give it value and worth in the eyes of a consumer. No one will care much if it’s free, so I won’t get any press or attention out of it unless I seem like a guy out to shamelessly make money of something classic and loved.

To make my issue with the ethics clear, at this point I should explain that it’s Triplanetary.

The ethics issues I myself have are not so much in retelling the story for a modern audience, but in whether or not I stay true to what Smith would have wanted the reader to walk away thinking and feeling and to the core values or ideas that come across in the characters (though I’ll be ramping them up to +11 as opposed to ripping them out). That, as a writer, is what will allow me to sleep at night, but having read what Miqque was saying about Sherlock, I started to wonder about other people’s feeling on the subject.

For instance, Simon; is there a reason you chose to stay faithful to Wilde and didn’t feel you had to with Dickens? Does the fact the A Christmas Carol is so widely known play a part in how much we’re comfortable with the elements being re-hashed as opposed to Dorian Grey?


What did he say other than he didn’t like a lot of the modern versions? That’s his prerogative but to be honest I am more likely to watch the recent BBC version.


I think any property is open for reinterpretation and re-examination. This is how literature and culture move forward. The Greek and Roman myths have been the subject of numerous reinterpretations over the millennia. Even recent works get “rebooted”. If you have an idea, don’t let the fear of upsetting people hold you back. Yes, some people will not be happy but that happens with everything. The market will decide its success or failure.

Be bold and move forward.


I think the main thing that got me thinking was this…

“My” Holmes was indeed in Victorian London, I feel to pull him out of time is to destroy the character. (I also outed the bastard, which only goes to show that there is usually a little bit of hate to spice up the love.)

While Miqque was fine with outing him (which I’m fine with, too), he felt that placing him in another time ruined the character completely.

So I thought “Is it more ethical to transcribe a fictional set-up to a modern or alternative setting than to change or confirm certain elements of the characters from the original?”

For me, as a writer, I personally feel the former would be more ethical than the latter. I’m not saying I wouldn’t add elements like this to a character, but I’d have a much longer think about it as when you start to play with elements like that you change the motivations of characters and that can affect the overall values and ideas of the characters themselves, one of the things I’m looking to adhere to strongly.

Anyway, that thinking led me to post, wondering about other people’s feelings on this type of thing.


I don’t really see the ‘ethical’ issue.

It’s really if it is well done. In any concept there will be purists but Miqque’s thoughts don’t prevent the fact that Sherlock is one of the best reviewed and watched shows on the planet. I loved Clueless and Forbidden Planet.


And there is the current American series Elementary that is really good.

Hell, the show House was basically Sherlock Holmes set in a hospital!

The reason many great works endure is the archetypes they portray so well.


I think it’s possibly a writers issue on my part. As a writer, I would care about what was done to my words in future and I can’t help but be empathetic as to what I do with someone else’s words, whether they’re around or not.


Nobody lives forever though and the current standard is 70 years after you die (at which point it is most likely your children are also dead).

Miqque prefers the Basil Rathbone or Jeremy Brett version but they were all done after the author was dead and had no say, he may just as well have hated them and loved Elementary.


The chances of AC Doyle being so annoyed that he rises from the ground as a zombie and tries to take his revenge on you are minimal and even so, he’s a zombie, you can take him.


That wasn’t really an ethical question in this case. A Christmas Carol was something that I wrote and staged on my own, so I felt that I had the free hand to do what I wanted with it…and to be fair, it was a fairly faithful in it’s own way. It just hit the same beats, possibly with a different rhythm…such as a Santa Claus dancing the mambo or a sing along to the Ramones. Budget was another concern. I didn’t have one, so hiring period costume was never going to be possible. Ultimately that wasn’t a huge question as it was never really the story that I wanted to tell.

I was commissioned to write The Picture of Dorian Gray by Dublin City Council as part of the One City One Book festival. The brief was pretty much to do the book and keep things as close to Wilde as possible. There were a lot of interpretations of Wilde going on during the festival, so really what they wanted from me was to give them Oscar’s words.

I wasn’t confident enough as a writer at the time to know that was way outside my comfort zone, but after 6 drafts I came up with something that I was happy with. To me it will always be a love story, albeit a very messed up, poisoned one. I lost control of that production, so no one has ever seen that version of the script performed.

I tend to agree with with Gar says.[quote=“garjones, post:12, topic:5259”]
It’s really if it is well done. In any concept there will be purists but Miqque’s thoughts don’t prevent the fact that Sherlock is one of the best reviewed and watched shows on the planet. I loved Clueless and Forbidden Planet.

I think that it really comes down to the material and your own feelings about whether what you do is fitting or not. The last bit of writing I put out in the world was for the last Write off. I ended up writing a sort of Beckettian story of two rather dim Stormtroopers who seem to lurch from catastrophe to catastrophe. I felt that I had license to do that because there have been innumerable alternative takes on Star Wars at this point, from that movie Troops, to the old Dark Horse Star Wars tales series to the Seth McFarlane stuff. I didn’t think that I was going to break anything.


I guess it seems that people are much more completely open to these things than I thought.

I honestly expected a bit more of “You can do this, but don’t ever do this…”

Having a remit that is basically, “Make it good or don’t make it at all,” is pretty easy to uphold.

*scraps idea

I’m kidding, it will be class. You’ll all love it.


You will always have someone who tells you that your work is crap, or if you’re lucky say that it’s just not to their taste.

I have had someone say it to my face once at a performance. It is quite freeing when you really understand that you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

Edit: I should add that what she was criticising was objectively bad. I had to agree with her. It was the one that I lost the reins of.


I agree. It’s all very subjective. I’m well versed in this from my long term involvement with earning money from music, so when it comes to writing it’s something I don’t fret over too much. I’ve worked hard for a long time to be as good as I want to be as far writing goes. I’m my harshest critic and I’ve deleted books of text - hours upon hours of work - through them not being the standard I feel they should be. After you’ve done things like that to yourself, someone else’s thoughts and feelings about your work don’t seem that important.

Edit: As per your edit, you’re right, it’s not all subjective. But a fair bit of it is.


You also have to remember that Miqque is one of our resident cranky old men. :wink: