Dracula, the Wizard of Oz, Sherlock Holmes. All of these properties could be the face of your next Amazon FBA product. And the best part? You don’t have to worry about any legal loopholes. They’re all public domain products.
What is public domain?
A public domain property is a work that is not subject to copyright, belonging or available to the public as a whole. Often, these are works that are 95 years old or older.
The four most common ways for a work to enter the public domain are as follows:
- Expired copyright. After 95 years, a copyright automatically expires. This is the case with L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz books, originally copyrighted in the early 1900’s.
- Failure to copyright correctly. Sometimes, mistakes can lead to properties entering the public domain. The most popular example of this is the film “Night of the Living Dead” (1968). The film’s original theatrical distributor neglected to place a copyright indication on the prints. This is the reason why the basic concepts behind the film (eg. the modern zombie) is so popular in media like “The Walking Dead” and “Zombieland”.
- Dedications. When a copyright owner deliberately places a work in the public domain, this is called a dedication. The Creative Commons website contains modern works created by artists to serve as publicly available content.
- Copyright law does not protect the work. Certain properties (such as ideas, concepts, and systems) aren’t covered by copyright law. Board-game mechanics often fall into this category. That’s why anybody can make a Monopoly-style game, as long as they don’t use the actual name and art from the Hasbro original.
For more information on the laws regarding copyrights, Stanford University has a complete article you can read.
What does this mean for Amazon FBA sellers?
Here are a few of the key reasons why Amazon sellers should consider public domain products:
Leverage existing brands
This is important for Amazon FBA sellers because it means they can leverage well-known brands and properties around which they can build their own items without having to pay licensing fees or deal with royalties.
Imagine having your own line of coffee mugs featuring the characters from the Wizard of Oz, using the original art by William Wallace Denslow.
Or maybe kickstarting a complete works of HP Lovecraft — the author of “Call of Cthulhu” whose works have influenced modern horror fiction for nearly 100 years — is more your style. With as big of a market as it attracts, you could see hundreds of thousands of dollars with such a book.
Save on time and resources
If you were to create your own product involving content such as a book or t-shirt design, you could spend hours, weeks, even months developing it.
Alternatively, if you paid someone to create the designs or content for you, it could still take a lot of time AND cost a lot of money!
By using public domain content, you can use what already exists without having to overthink it. For a book, make sure the words are correct and everything is organized. For a design, grab the image from a site like Creative Commons or Shutterstock.
Do what you love
Perhaps the best part of working within the public domain is the ability to use works that you actually care about.
If you’re a fan of Sherlock Holmes, you get to make Sherlock Holmes-related products without going through any legal complications.
Love Einstein? Why not use the picture of him sticking his tongue out on a new line of t-shirts?
How to check if something is in the public domain
When it comes to finding properties that are in the public domain, here are a few tricks you can use to hunt them down:
Check the date
This is probably the easiest way to find public domain products, requiring the least amount of research.
After being published 95 years ago or earlier, works automatically enter the public domain. From today’s date in 2019, works published before the same date in 1924 would be in the public domain.
If a creator dies with unpublished works, those works enter the public domain 70 years after the creator’s death. For example, Ernest Hemingway died in 1961. In 2011, his unpublished works were available in the public domain.
Ironically, some of his published works, such as “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (1940), are not yet in public domain despite being written much earlier.
Catalog of Copyright Entries
Next, if you know the date of an item’s publication, you can search the Catalog of Copyright Entries. An online version of the catalog can be found on The Online Books Page.
U.S. Copyright Office Search
You can also perform an online search on the U.S. Copyright Office’s official website. It’s a little easier than perusing the print catalog,
Hire a third-party copyright researcher
Finally, a method I frequently use is to hire someone on a platform like Fiverr or Upwork to perform the copyright search for me. After all, there tends to be a lot of information you need to gather in order to ensure that something isn’t copyrighted, especially if it’s less than 95 years old.
Typically, the fee for these searches is minimal — much less than you would pay licensing the work. There is a bit of risk involved, however, so make sure you trust the credibility of the freelancer.
What movies are in the public domain?
Here is a short (but by no means complete) list of films that are in the public domain. Many of these films can be found on Public Domain Movies, which not only includes the full video for these films, but the reasons behind their trademark lapses.
1 – “Night of the Living Dead”
Released in 1968, “Night of the Living Dead” had the misfortune of not having its trademark submitted properly. Good thing, too, since we never would have had “The Walking Dead” or “Zombieland” had that been the case.
2 – “White Zombie”
Speaking of zombies, the 1932 Bela Lugosi flick about witch doctors doing evil things entered the public domain almost immediately after its release. Like the aforementioned “Night of the Living Dead”, “White Zombie” suffered from trademarking mishaps.
3 – “Plan 9 From Outer Space”
Often considered the worst film ever made, Ed Wood’s cheeseball classic is about an alien invasion, not to mention another movie starring Bela Lugosi and zombies. Originally, the film wasn’t copyrighted during its release in 1958. It saw a few trademark renewals but then, in 1981, its trademark wasn’t renewed, thus entering it into the public domain.
4 – “Reefer Madness”
The ultimate sensationalized movie about drug use, “Reefer Madness” comes off more as an ironic comedy now than a film about the dangers of drugs. Like many films, this 1936 cult hit failed to trademark itself properly and entered public domain in the 1970s.
5 – “A Star is Born”
You may have seen the remake of this last year starring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. What you may not know, though, is that the movie may never have been made had Warner Brothers remembered to renew the copyright on the original 1937 film in 1965.
Additional public domain films:
- “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946)
- “The Little Shop of Horrors” (1960)
- “The Phantom of the Opera” (1925)
- “Carnival of Souls” (1962)
- “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” (1964)
- “McClintock!” (1963)
- “His Girl Friday” (1940)
- “The Lost World” (1925)
- “House on Haunted Hill” (1959)
- “Nosferatu” (1922)
What books are in the public domain?
Interested in re-releasing or referencing a popular book title? Here is a short, but far-from-complete, list of books that are in the public domain.
1 – Sherlock Holmes
Ever wonder why there’s so many Sherlock Holmes TV shows, games, and movies? It’s because almost 100% of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels about the eccentric detective are in the public domain.
In fact, in 2014, a judge ruled that not only were the works in the public domain, but Doyle’s estate has no claim to any royalties from such works (LA Times).
2 – Dracula
Another famous character from literature that you’re sure to see over and over again, Dracula (first published in 1897), entered public domain in 1962. If you’re quick at math, that’s only 50 years after Stoker’s death, which adheres to the laws at the time.
Interestingly, some of the characters from the book — such as Van Helsing — have odd trademark rules surrounding them thanks to some sketchy practices by Universal Studios in 2003 (blog, Flashback Universe).
3 – HP Lovecraft
You might not have heard of HP Lovecraft before, but his influence has been felt throughout all of modern horror. Films like John Carpenter’s “The Thing”, “Ghostbusters”, and “Conan the Barbarian” all draw direct inspiration from his works. Furthermore, you may have heard of Lovecraft’s most famous creation, a tentacle-faced beastie named Cthulhu.
Most of Lovecraft’s works entered public domain in 2008, 70 years after his death, though there is still some contention over a few of his titles. You can learn more on his Fandom page.
4 – The Wizard of Oz
Twenty-four of L. Frank Baum’s original Wizard of Oz books are part of the public domain, having timed-out 95 years after their first release.
However, the popular 1939 film has yet to enter the public domain, as MGM continues to renew its trademark. As long as the law remains the same, the film starring Judy Garland will join the books in the public domain in 2035.
5 – “Les Miserables”
Victor Hugo’s incredibly popular novel and play, “Les Miserables”, was written in the 19th century. Therefore, it is firmly in the public domain.
But, like the aforementioned titles, movies made around the property are separately trademarked and can’t be used.
Additional public domain books:
- “Tarzan and the Golden Lion” by Edgar Rice Burroughs
- “The Time Machine” by HG Wells
- “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley
- “The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne
- “The Odyssey” by Homer
- “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Bronte
- “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain
- “The Count of Monte Cristo” by Alexandre Dumas
- “The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” by Robert Louis Stephenson
- “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville
What images are in the public domain?
In addition to films and books, there are plenty of famous works of art, photographs, and even logos that are in the public domain as well.
1 – NASA logo
An item that’s frequently trending: the NASA logo. Like many other government produced images, the logo is in the public domain.
However, there is an important exception.
According to the Wikipedia article on the NASA insignia, “their usage is restricted under Code of Federal Regulations 14 CFR 1221. These NASA emblems should be reproduced only from original reproduction proofs, transparencies, or computer files available from NASA Headquarters.” You can find those files on NASA’s website.
2 – Mona Lisa
Many famous paintings are in the public domain. For example, the Mona Lisa is in the public domain because the painting’s artist, Leonardo da Vinci, died more than 70 years ago. Keep in mind, however, that not all photographs of the Mona Lisa are public domain. You will need to find open source images that are also in the public domain; the alternative, of course, is to drive to France and take pictures of her yourself.
3 – Albert Einstein’s likeness
Know that famous picture of Einstein sticking his tongue out? Guess what? Yep! Public domain. Einstein’s publicity rights expired in 2005, 50 years after his death, as deemed by the California Federal Court.
4 – Vintage posters
Many vintage posters from the 1920s and earlier are part of the public domain, having expired 70 years after their trademark. Old travel posters, for example, are making a strong comeback, many of which were created for the railroad industry in the late 1800s (blog, Library of Congress).
5 – NASA images
Speaking of NASA, all of the images that NASA creates are also part of the public domain, including shots taken by the Hubble telescope, pictures of the Apollo missions, and plenty more. Much of it can be found directly on NASA’s image gallery.
Additional public domain images:
- Felix the Cat
- “American Gothic” by Grant Wood
- “V-J, 1945, Times Square” by Alfred Eisenstaedt
- Louis Armstrong playing the trumpet
- Rosa Parks mugshots
- The smiling black ape photo
- White House photostream
- Stills from public domain photos
- Images of people dead for 70 years or more (see the Einstein example above)
Are you already using characters and/or images in the public domain? Are you planning to create more? Feel free to add your comments below; we’d love to hear about your experiences.