Public Domain Characters

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John Thomas
IBM Research Hawthorne
Douglas Schuler
Public Sphere Project

Stories are one ancient and still powerful technique for people to create and share knowledge across temporal and geographical boundaries. Stories may be conceptualized as having three major dimensions: character, plot, and environment. Traditionally, societies have used and shared all of these dimensions. Today, in an effort to make the rich and powerful yet richer and more powerful, the natural processes of creating, sharing, and building on stories has been subverted into a process of "claiming" the world of stories as private property. This limits artistic creativity and stunts the growth of collective wisdom.


Large, powerful corporations (many recently merged) control much of the media and have a huge influence on the international copyright laws. In most cases, the characters used in movies and television shows (even if originally taken from the public domain) are restricted in terms of the ability of anyone else to use them. In fact, in some cases, people have been sued even for setting up "fan sites" for these characters as well as for using them in satire.

Arguably, there has never been a greater need for collective human wisdom. Yet, the profit motive gone hypertrophic has put a host of economic, legal, and logistical barriers across possible paths of collaborative thought.


Humankind has generated a magnificent pantheon of fictional and not-so-fictional characters over the millennia of its existence. Unbelievably enough, this rich legacy may be stopped cold through a transfer of the ownership of humankind's stories and images to corporate rather than shared "commons" ownership.

Civil society should establish a repository of characters who are available to all without charge. This could contain characters from our pre-corporate past as well as those of more recent vintage (such as Cat-Man ( who was raised in Burma by a Tigress but abandoned on our doorstep by the corporation that spawned him. Ultimately it could even include those are now serving time, cloistered behind commercial contracts until their sentences expire. Novelists could legally allow the inhabitants of the universes they created to be enlisted in others: Cartoonists such as Matt Groening could donate Homer Simpson or a brand new type of American everyman complete with voices and descriptions of where he lived and what he liked to do. Frustrated novelists could supply names and descriptions that their colleagues could borrow for their own work. However, it is not only artists and writers who benefit from having access to stories and the characters who inhabit them. Characters can serve as sources of inspiration for all; they can give us hope in dire times; they can serve as models for ethical, effective, or clever behavior. One use of characters is to serve as a kind of "Board of Directors" that we can use imaginatively to help look at our problems and proposed solutions from various perspectives. (See

The Disney corporation may be the most prolific "borrower" of stories (including Aladdin, Atlantis, Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, Davy Crockett, Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Hercules, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Jungle Book, Oliver Twist, Pinocchio, Pocahontas, Robin Hood, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Three Musketeers, Treasure Island, and the Wind in the Willows) from the public domain; the number of stories they have added to the humankind's commonwealth is still at zero. (Thanks in part to legislation that granted Mickey Mouse another 75 years of service to the corporation.)( State of the Commons - Culture)


Encourage the open source creation and use of "characters." This will enable artists to build richly on each other's work. Characters are not only an aspect of stories for entertainment; they also serve as sources of inspiration, community coherence devices, and tools of thought for creative problem solving. Open source characters help in all these domains.

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