Most Hollywood films and television shows are based off “Intellectual Property,” or “I.P.” Free intellectual property comes from the public domain. People are more likely to buy a ticket for a movie about a character they already know and love, so if you want a screenplay idea, maybe it’s time to search the public domain.  

Today, we’re going to go over the public domain and how you can come up with new ideas by adapting items off the list. Most of us don’t have access to the latest bestselling books, so this is a great way to still use intellectual property to your advantage.

1. Define Public Domain

What is the public domain?

The “public domain” means items that aren’t protected by copyright laws. You can use them freely, without legal repercussions.

These stories are a great way to use a classic tale as a jumping-off point. And there are plenty of public domain novels to go around.


How does a book get into the public domain?

There are a few ways a book can enter the public domain.

  1. The copyright has expired and not been reissued.
  2. The copyright owner didn’t file or filed the renewal incorrectly
  3. The copyright owner places it in the public domain, known as “dedication,” so that future generations can have it for free.
  4. Copyright law does not protect that specific type of work.

For a more info on copyright law, the Stanford Library has you covered.

Public Domain Public Domain Books Ideas for Screenplay Harry Potter

Visit a library to find books in the public domain.

3. Public Domain Ideas

Why use public domain ideas?

As mentioned at the top, original content is not moving the needle like it used to in Hollywood. You need to prove people will show up to watch your idea.

Public Domain Ideas for Screenplay making a 3d movie

Making a 3D movie? Cut costs with some books in the public domain.

What better way than to base your idea on something that’s already part of the cultural lexicon?  

When you’re pitching to an executive, they’re only going to be thinking about the trailer for the movie. Is there something cool they can highlight? Is there a famous fairy tale or an iconic character that everyone knows?

Disney is the king of this maneuver.

Public Domain Public Domain Books Ideas for Screenplay Pocahontus

Pocahontas is one of the best public domain books.

Beauty and The Beast, Arabian Nights, Alice in Wonderland, The Princess and the Frog, and The Little Mermaid

Disney has over 50 titles based off the public domain.

Public Domain Public Domain Books Ideas for Screenplay The Lion King

The Lion King is based on Hamlet

4. Written Works

Sourcing from public domain books, novels, stories

Books and novels are great items for source material for your projects. We all know writing is hard and time-consuming. The more groundwork you can cover with the source material, the more you can put your own original spin on things.

But what are public domain books?

Some of the best literature of all time has entered the public domain. You can adapt them completely or just use their plots and make it feel contemporary.

It’s all up to the writer.

Public Domain Public Domain Books Ideas for Screenplay What is Public Domain

Books are an endless source of material


Public Domain Books

Recent literature include works by Jane Austen, D.H. Lawrence, Edith Wharton, Jorge Luis Borges, Mikhail Bulgakov, Jean Cocteau, Italo Svevo, Aldous Huxley, Winston Churchill, G.K. Chesterton, Maria Montessori, Lu Xun, Joseph Conrad, Zane Grey, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Rice Burroughs. 

  • Cane by Jean Toomer
  • The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
  • Bambi by Felix Salten, illustrated by Barbara Cooney—the source of Disney’s animated film, and the first in a series
  • The Ego and the Id by Sigmund Freud
  • Towards a New Architecture by Le Corbusier
  • Whose Body?, the first Lord Peter Wimsey novel by Dorothy L. Sayers
  • Short story “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street” by Virginia Woolf
  • Emily of New Moon, the first book of L.M. Montgomery’s Emily trilogy
  • The Inimitable Jeeves and Leave it to Psmith by P.G. Wodehouse
  • Two of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot novels, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and The Murder on the Links
  • The Prisoner, volume 5 of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (note that English translations have their own copyrights)
  • The Complete Works of Anthony Trollope
  • George Bernard Shaw’s play Saint Joan
  • Short stories by Christie, Virginia Woolf, H.P. Lovecraft, Katherine Mansfield, and Ernest Hemingway

5.  List of Books

Where can you find public domain books and stories?

GoodReads has a list of books that are available for everyone. If your eyes are tired, Librivox has a ton of free audiobooks to help you score the right title to inspire your next masterpiece.  

Public Domain Public Domain Books Ideas for Screenplay Frankenweenie

Frankenstein and his monster are great public domain characters.

But there’s one ultimate database you have to check out.

Project Gutenberg has 57,000 free ebooks that are in the public domain. That’s a crazily extensive list of free books.

What’s amazing about the website is that it’s devoted to actually keeping track of and updated its database as time goes by.

That means as more and more titles enter the public domain they’ll be aggregated there. But how can the public domain influence your work?

Public Domain Public Domain Books Ideas for Screenplay the bible

The Bible is packed with great public domain characters.

6.  Available Characters

Public domain examples and characters

Aside from Disney’s monopoly on the public domain. There are lots of other ways to use these stories to help set up your work. Let’s take a look at a few examples.

How about using Shakespeare as an inspiration like in She’s The Man?

ublic Domain Public Domain Books Ideas for Screenplay She’s the man

Shakespeare contains great public domain characters.

Or in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead? Much Ado About Nothing? And O!

There’s always using a character like Robin Hood and spinning a new adventure out of it. You can even add your own backstory like in Snow White and the Huntsman.

Public Domain Public Domain Books Ideas for Screenplay Snowman and the Huntsman

Public domain worked for Snow White AND the Huntsman

We’re always bringing King Arthur back. And let’s not forget that everything in The Bible is free and clear.

Public Domain Public Domain Books Ideas for Screenplay noah

Public Domain Books are everywhere.

Books are are great way to revamp old stories. But you can also use poetry to get your wheels turning.

But the same applies for movies. You can source your projects from some of the classic listed below.


Public Domain FILMS

Recent additions include:

  • Cecil B. DeMille’s (first, less famous, silent version of) The Ten Commandments 
  • Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last!, including that scene where he dangles off a clock tower, and his Why Worry?
  • A long line-up of feature-length silent films, including Buster Keaton’s Our Hospitality and Charlie Chaplin’s The Pilgrim
  • Short films by Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, and Our Gang (later Little Rascals)
  • Cartoons including Felix the Cat (the character first appeared in a 1919 cartoon)
  • Marlene Dietrich’s film debut, a bit part in the German silent comedy The Little Napoleon; also the debuts of Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Fay Wray

7. Finding Poetry

Sourcing film ideas from poetry

I know what you’re thinking. “Books are long, so they can sustain a movie. How can a poem?” That’s right. Some of the greatest movies ever made are based on poems.

So why aren’t you mining for ideas there?

O Brother, Where Art Thou is based off Homer’s classic poem, The Odyssey.  And Troy is based off The Iliad.

Public Domain Public Domain Books Ideas for Screenplay The Odyssey

O Brother, Where Art Thou? loosely based on The Odyssey

Did you know Braveheart is based off a poem called The Wallace?

Public Domain Public Domain Books Ideas for Screenplay Braveheart

And, once again, Disney has beaten you to the punch.

Public Domain Public Domain Books Ideas for Screenplay Mulan

Mulan is just an adaptation of “Ballad of Mulan.”


Public Domain POETRY

Poetry by Edna St. Vincent Millay, E.E. Cummings, William Carlos Williams, Rainer Maria Rilke, Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, Sukumar Ray, and Pablo Neruda and many more.


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