Among other things, for me 2012 was a window into the early days of science fiction. A trailer for Disney’s very expensive box-office blunder John Carter set me looking for source material: it was clear there was more the audience was supposed to recognize! As I have always been a read-the-book-before-the-movie type, I was pleased to discover that John Carter and his eleven documented adventures upon Barsoom were not only fairly simply to find, but also public domain works! I managed to find a way to read A Princess of Mars for free, and became fascinated with the fantastical retro-future Edgar Rice Burroughs developed a hundred years ago (literally – the first serial in what became the first book was released in February 1912). The book was clearly an early form of pulp novel, and deeply problematic to the modern reader on many thematic levels. But it was so outlandish I couldn’t help but love it.
My experience with A Princess of Mars (and subsequently The Gods of Mars and Warlord of Mars) brought Burroughs himself further onto my radar. Before John Carter, I had mostly dismissed Burroughs as the creator of Tarzan, many of whose books had gotten my mother into trouble at school. Upon finishing the first Barsoom novel (so called for the native Martians’ (single) word (across many races) for their home planet), I did some digging and found out what many older SF/F fans (especially the men, I suspect) will already know: Burroughs has an extensive bibliography of scifi novels, beginning with A Princess of Mars and not letting up until his death (and with the Tarzan series, not even then). I had never really classified Tarzan as scifi, rather lumping it generally under pulp/adventure, but looking at the other series Burroughs created (including Pellucidar, a hollow-earth series reminiscent of Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth (which is also in the public domain)) it’s clear that science fiction (or science fantasy, or even the dreaded “speculative fiction”) was his definite M.O..
Basically, the trainwreck effect has caused me to become the only fan I personally know of a slightly terrible hundred-year-old series of pulp novels. What it also has done is made me think about public domain. Disney was obviously interested in exploiting the centennial of Barsoom with the film (of which I attended my local midnight showing, of course), and in response Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc (did you know he was the first writer to incorporate himself?) trademarked phrases like “A Princess of Mars,” “John Carter of Mars,” etc, despite their being public domain and thus not trademark-able under the USSC’s Dastar Corp v Twentieth Century Fox Corp decision. This couldn’t and didn’t stop Disney from making their film (and, for modern sensibilities, improving the source materials substantially) and using precisely whatever terms they wanted, which, as it turned out, eschewed the word “princess” as is now Disney’s habit.
Obviously a more famous example of public domain exploitation is the sudden explosion of Sherlock Holmes all over everyone. We’ve got movies, we’ve got TV series, we’ve got different TV series, and people coming out of the woodwork claiming they’ve been fans all along (some of them probably even have). The idea that anyone can do whatever they like with Sherlock Holmes simultaneously makes the property extremely tempting and oversaturated, especially with something as iconic as the Holmes stories – the ultimate “safe bet.”
Disney has been playing public domain both ends against the middle since the 1930’s, banking on adaptations of public domain properties while also seeking to prevent any of their adaptations or other properties ever entering the public domain. As we reach the point of semantic overload and the term “public domain” ceases to mean anything when we see it, my point is that this year, mostly due to John Carter, I have found it interesting to condsider the uses, abuses, and exploitations of public domain works, famous and obscure, by all kinds of media. Sometimes it’s as simple as counting the commercials this fall and winter using Little Red Riding Hood imagery. Sometimes it’s like what happened to me with John Carter. It also makes me think a lot about copyright and its implications for adaptive and transformative works that would be perfectly legal were works in the public domain, but aren’t yet. Having a time limit on when a work becomes art sits funny with me, but there has also been quite a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth in the past few years about fanfiction and fan works generally as the posterchild for this sort of thing. Even authors and artists are divided – popular and iconic examples include Marion Zimmer Bradley’s famously pro-fanfic stance (minus her legal need to step away from helping with it) and George RR Martin’s equating fanfic to one’s children being raped (to be fair, I don’t accurately remember if the quote was his or if he was simply agreeing with someone else who had said that).
These next couple of decades are going to be fascinating as we try to legislate the ever-changing face of information and consumption. There must be thousands if not millions of public domain works I didn’t mention – are there any you want to see adapted? Are there any you hope no one ever finds? Let us know in the comments!