Paul C. VanSlyke, Senior Counsel at Hoover Slovacek LLP
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Screenwriters can use stories in the public domain legally

The entertainment industry can be a difficult place to maneuver. After several decades of storytelling, it may seem as if there is not much more to be explored with completely original content. For this reason, the law allows screenwriters here in Texas and elsewhere to take advantage of stories that exist in the public domain and are no longer guarded by their original owners. The material could come from a variety of sources, including video games, comic books or other literary works, including other screenplays.

Knowing what content may be used without legal ramifications may not be easy to discern, however. Copyright laws do not protect some material. For example, the fact that a particular comet will pass by the earth on a certain date cannot be copyrighted. This type of information and detail may help with a screenplay, but fortunately, this information is not the only type that a screenwriter may use when creating a new work.

Even material that someone copyrighted may now be part of the public domain. Copyrights expire, and if they are not renewed in accordance with established rules, the content and its owner no longer receive the legal protections they once did. Regardless of whether a content owner does take the steps to renew a copyright, it may not be granted depending on the circumstances. The rules are quite specific and must be followed properly.

Texas screenwriters who are unsure whether they can use a particular piece of material are better off investigating that question rather than taking a chance and using it anyway. The repercussions could be costly otherwise. Whether an individual wants to answer this question or has original content that he or she wants to copyright in order to keep it from entering the public domain, it would be beneficial to discuss the matter with an attorney experienced in entertainment law.

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