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14 Famous Movie Characters in the Public Domain for Anyone to Use


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by Xtreme HD IPTV

When it comes to beloved fictional characters, copyright laws are often at play; these laws are meant to protect the creative works of artists, legally discerning who can profit from a fictional character’s likeness and story. Yet, some beloved characters are exempt from these stipulations and join what’s called the public domain, a term that refers to all creative works that are not subject to intellectual property laws. In other words, characters in the public domain are available for anyone to use and adapt the way they see fit.

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Updated Jan. 6, 2024: This article has been updated with additional content, including the anticipated public domain status of Steamboat Willie.

Throughout the years, characters from books, movies, and even ancient mythology have become a part of the public domain. From Tarzan to Thor, we’ll explore some of the most well-known movie characters who have since entered the public domain, and recount the stories that helped make these characters household names.

14 Mickey Mouse

As Depicted in Steamboat Willie

Steamboat Willie Mickey Mouse
Walt Disney Studio

What is possibly the most popular property to enter the public domain recently has to be that of Disney’s Mickey Mouse. Specifically, we’re referring to the depiction of the character featured in Steamboat Willie, an animated short originally produced in 1928. This short introduced Mickey Mouse to the world as a replacement for Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, whose ownership rights were squarely with Universal Pictures instead of Disney. While it’s not technically the first ever Mickey Mouse short ever produced, it would become the first to be widely distributed, on account of it being one of the first animated shorts to feature a soundtrack in post-production.

Mind you, public domain status applies to Steamboat Willie and Steamboat Willie alone. Similar to how Winnie-the-Pooh entered the public domain in recent years, it’s important to keep in mind that specific depictions of a character do fall under legal protection — which is why you won’t see Winnie-the-Pooh wearing an iconic red shirt anywhere other than Disney, for instance. The same applies here. Only this specific iteration of Mickey Mouse, down to its exact details, has officially entered the public domain; not the character as a whole.

13 Jay Gatsby

The Mysterious Face of The Great Gatsby

Jay Gatsby is a featured character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic tale, The Great Gatsby. Though the book was released in 1925, Jay Gatsby became a part of the public domain in January 2021, nearly 100 years after the hotshot was introduced to the public. Arguably one of the most well-known pieces of American literature, and a staple of American high schools everywhere, The Great Gatsby chronicled the exploits of the titular Jay Gatsby, a mysterious millionaire, through the eyes of Nick Carraway. The book itself is a sprawling examination of American culture in the midst of the Roaring Twenties, painting a broad picture of social class divides, examinations of the American Dream, and the socioeconomic complexities intersecting the two.

One of the most recognized adaptations of The Great Gatsby was the titular 2013 film directed by Baz Luhrmann, where Leonardo DiCaprio played the role of Jay. Here, Jay was shown to be as dazzling and love-struck as ever; with Luhrmann’s fast-paced camerawork and unique visuals, the classic character was given new life set against a backdrop of glitzy sets and contemporary music. A lesser-known adaptation of the film was released in 1974 as well, with Robert Redford donning the role of Jay and Francis Ford Coppola penning the screenplay.

12 Peter Pan

The Boy Who Never Grew Up

Today, Peter Pan is widely recognized due to Disney’s iconic portrayal of the character in 1953’s Peter Pan, with his signature voice being provided by Bobby Driscoll. The character may not need an introduction for most, but in case you’re out of the loop, we’ll provide a brief synopsis. Famously known as “the boy who refused to grow up,” Peter Pan is a fun-loving boy whose adventures in the magical Neverland are filled with a variety of supernatural creatures and sea-faring adventurers. He’s often seen traveling alongside fellow child Wendy Darling, Neverland’s numerous Lost Boys, and the nefarious Captain Hook.

However, the boy who refused to grow up originated from Scottish novelist J.M. Barrie decades before Disney had the chance to adapt the story. Disney’s 1953 film was specifically adapted from Barrie’s titular play, which was originally published in 1904. A subsequent novelization released in 1911, along with a complete mess of intermingling copyright laws and extensions, kept the original work under legal wraps for decades. That is, except for the parts that weren’t protected. We won’t break it down here, as there’s simply too much legalese to cover in so few sentences. Thankfully, you won’t have to worry about these distinctions anymore, as 2024 officially brought the original Peter Pan play into the public domain.

Movies that feature Peter Man include 1991’s Hook, 2003’s Peter Pan, and 2023’s Peter Pan & Wendy. Hook is arguably one of the most interesting depictions of the character, demonstrating the strengths of public domain freedoms by interpreting Peter Pan as a fully grown adult. Though the films all tell a unique story, each holds true to the original characterization of Peter Pan.

11 Tarzan

The Man Raised by Apes

Tarzan is a character who was originally created by prolific author Edgar Rice Burroughs. Debuting in the 1912 novel Tarzan of the Apes, Tarzan is a man who was raised by apes after a freak accident leaves him alone and vulnerable in the jungle. The subsequent books in the series, as well as Disney’s titular adaptation in 1999, showcase Tarzan’s difficulties in navigating the cultural divides between the jungle and civilization.

Though most may recognize Tarzan via Tony Goldwyn’s performance in Disney’s film, the character has seen a plethora of adaptations. A 1960s television series saw Ron Ely portraying the character, albeit with a bizarrely pristine haircut. Other live action adaptations, like The Legend of Tarzan, with Alexander Skarsgård, put a stern edge on the character. He’s a character who is as intriguing as he is athletic, making him a wonderful addition to both the public domain and the creative world.

10 The Wizard of Oz

The Great and Powerful

Since its release in 1939, The Wizard of Oz has undoubtedly cemented itself as a classic film, based on the original story by L. Frank Baum. However, the titular character is perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of the story; as the almighty and powerful ruler of Oz, this wizard is shown to be one of the wisest, most magical beings in the land. Yet, as the story goes, the wizard turns out to be nothing more than a normal man, certainly capable of providing advice but not performing magic. He is a complex but relatable character who is integral to any story that takes place in the land of Oz.

Though the 1939 version of The Wizard of Oz is still firmly under copyright protection, the characters featured in the original L. Frank Baum story, including Oz himself, are in the public domain. Of course, due to an unconventional copyright ruling, you’ll have to make some drastic creative deviations when depicting them on the big screen. You can find an example of this in Disney’s Oz the Great and Powerful, a film that takes place prior to the events of the first Oz novel. In this film, James Franco plays a younger Oz in an origin story for the character. A plethora of other Oz adaptations are currently in development.

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9 Mad Hatter

The Manic Host

Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland has definitely seen its fair share of cinematic adaptions. Yet, one of the most polarizing characters is certainly the Mad Hatter, a zany tea-party host who wears a unique top hat. He’s one of many colorful characters Alice encounters on her journey through Wonderland, with a plethora of iconic depictions bringing the character to life on the big screen.

Disney created both an animated and live-action adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, each of which takes the Mad Hatter in a different direction. For example, Ed Wynn’s depiction of the character in the original 1951 Alice in Wonderland portrayed him as a jovial, if not manic, tea enthusiast. Johnny Depp’s depiction of the character in the 2010 Alice in Wonderland is slightly toned-down, along with featuring some of Depp’s mannerisms. However, both movies showcase the character as being highly unpredictable, jittery, and at times goofy. The Mad Hatter is perfectly fit for a world called Wonderland, bringing the right amount of kookiness to any situation.

8 Hercules

The Powerful Demigod

Hercules is the first character here who originates from Greek and Roman mythology, perhaps making him the oldest character on this list. In fact, the character is so old that he existed before copyright laws even existed, making him automatically exempt from laws of this kind. If you need a refresher, Hercules is the son of Jupiter and Alcmena, a demigod whose monolithic strength is unmatched by even the greatest of Gods.

The character got his own cinematic release in 1997 via Disney’s Hercules, where he was portrayed by Tate Donovan. However, the character has seen multiple creative reworks both in film and television. Dwayne Johnson even put his own spin on the character in 2014’s Hercules, which was directed by Brett Ratner. He’s a character who lends himself well to a plethora of stories, whether they’re set in ancient times, or placed firmly in the modern day.

7 Queen of Hearts

The Zany Ruler of Wonderland

Verna Felton as the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland (1951)
Walt Disney Productions

Another Alice in Wonderland addition to this list, the Queen of Hearts, is the tyrannical ruler of the fictional Wonderland. Known for her love of all things red, the Queen of Hearts certainly has an explosive temper that she shows off in a not-so-graceful way. Mind you, she’s not to be confused with the Red Queen, who was a central villain in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass. The character is the main antagonist in the original Lewis Carroll story as well as in Disney’s classic adaptation, being voiced by Verna Felton. Like the previously mentioned Mad Hatter, the Queen of Hearts is as zany as her Wonderland counterparts, causing trouble and chaos everywhere she goes.

6 King Kong

The Menace of Skull Island

King Kong is a character who has been around for decades. From his first appearance in 1933’s King Kong all the way to 2021’s Godzilla vs. Kong, the gigantic ape-monster has terrorized innocent civilians, the numerous predators on Skull Island, and the big screen for nearly 100 years across more than a dozen films.

Today, King Kong is a pop-culture phenomenon, being one of the most recognizable movie monsters to this day. Whether he’s scaling the Empire State Building or battling it out with Godzilla, this is one unpredictable beast you don’t want to mess with. His legal standing as a public domain character, however, is more than a little complicated. Without getting into decades of legalese and court battles, the novelization of the original King Kong film, which was originally produced in 1932, is firmly within the public domain.

5 Robin Hood

Robin of Loxley

Robin Hood is another old character on this list, originating from English folklore that dates back centuries. A talented swordsman and archer, the character’s origins vary significantly, but a few common characteristics can be found throughout. The character is best known for stealing from the rich to give to the poor, dressing in green garments, and battling the Sheriff of Nottingham.

The character has been used in a multitude of films and television shows. One of the most well-known depictions of Robin Hood is the 1991 film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, starring Kevin Costner, which follows the titular character as he works to protect his kingdom. Ridley Scott would give the character a similar story in 2010’s Robin Hood, with Russell Crowe depicting the famous character. However, other versions of the film show the character in his typical heroic disposition, like Disney’s 1973 film Robin Hood.

4 Ebenezer Scrooge

The Callous Focus of A Christmas Carol

Ebenezer Scrooge is the main protagonist in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Of course, that’s not to suggest that he’s a hero. Ebenezer Scrooge is known for his signature phrase “bah humbug,” his sinister outlook on life, his cruel attitude around the holidays, as well as his ability to reflect on his actions and change for the better. He is a highly complicated but ultimately redeemable man who learns his lesson after being visited by three ghosts on one very special Christmas Eve.

Scrooge has seen plenty of screen time in movies like 2009’s A Christmas Carol and 1970’s Scrooge, with most depictions of the character adhering to Charles Dickens’ original work. Disney’s Scrooge McDuck famously takes after Dickens’ original creation, who similarly values wealth and business prosperity.

3 Frankenstein’s Monster

A Horror Icon

Most monsters from Universal’s classic monster movies were based on public domain creations, but perhaps the most notable is Frankenstein’s Monster. The character was originally created by author Mary Shelley in 1818, and has since been reimagined by modern filmmakers and producers. Frankenstein’s Monster, often erroneously shortened to just Frankenstein, was created in a laboratory by a mad scientist via the body parts of the deceased, culminating in a story whose impact on the horror genre is still felt to this day. In pop culture, most associate Frankenstein’s Monster with Universal’s 1931 depiction of the character, with his green skin, neck bolts, and distinct walk.

Though Universal may own the rights to the most iconic depiction of Frankenstein’s Monster, that’s not to say that he hasn’t been seen in other films and shows. Herman Munster, originally played by Fred Gwyne, turns Frankenstein’s Monster into a lovable sitcom father in The Munsters. Aaron Eckhart portrayed a version of Frankenstein’s Monster in I, Frankenstein, a well-meaning but financially unsuccessful take on the character that turned him into an action hero.

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2 Thor

The Norse God of Thunder

Today, Thor might be known as the lovable, funny Avengers hero played by Chris Hemsworth. However, unlike some of the other Marvel superheroes, Thor originates from Norse mythology and thus exists in the public domain. Known as the son of Odin, Thor is recognized for his strength, enormous power, and courageous attitude, along with his mighty hammer, Mjölnir. He is the Norse God of Thunder, working to protect the Earth and carry out heroic duties.

In the popular Marvel Cinematic Universe, Thor is shown wielding his mighty hammer and fighting alongside the greatest superhero league in the world. Of course, Thor isn’t restricted to just the world of comics. Thor, and by extension other Norse gods, have been reinterpreted in dozens upon dozens of television and film productions since the medium’s inception. A popular recent example would be in the Netflix anime series Record of Ragnarök, which takes more than a few creative liberties with the character’s original depiction.

1 Sherlock Holmes

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Famous Detective

Sherlock Holmes is perhaps one of the most famous public domain additions of all time. Created by author Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes is a London-based detective, known for his is ability to crack difficult investigative cases, his occasional stimulant use, and his prolific rivalry with James Moriarity. If you enjoy a show or film involving mystery-solving or criminal investigations, there’s more than a good chance that Holmes has had a direct influence on it. Some shows can even be interpreted as a spiritual adaptation of Sherlock Holmes, without directly using the character. For example, the character of Gregory House in House, aside from making frequent allusions and references to Holmes’ stories, also shares many similar traits with him.

Sherlock Holmes has been the star of multiple theatrical releases, many of which center on his keen eye and ability to solve intricate mysteries. Some of his most popular depictions in recent memory include Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance in BBC’s Sherlock, as well as Robert Downey Jr.’s performance in 2010’s Sherlock Holmes. A comedic interpretation of Holmes was also played by Will Ferrell in 2018’s Holmes & Watson, albeit to mixed reviews.

The character has since become a cultural icon, known for his pipe-smoking and signature tweed coat. Today, Sherlock Holmes is now able to be freely re-imagined by any studio looking to tackle his story; only time will tell what new works are created.

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