If you ever wondered why some popular characters are restricted to one franchise from one studio, while others seem to star in multiple movies or TV shows simultaneously, there is likely a two word answer to your question: Public domain.

Works of art, books, movies, and so on are all initially protected by copyright. The exact length of a copyright varies based on certain factors, including when the work was originally protected. But generally speaking the copyright on something lasts until 70 years after the death of its author. (If something was created by a writer or artist as a work for hire, copyright lasts for 95 years from the date of publication.) After that, a work enters the public domain — where anyone can legally watch, read, or reuse the material without approval from the author. (It’s kind of hard to get the author’s approval when the person has been dead for 70 years.)

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Although some major corporations have fought to extend the lengths of copyright to protect their intellectual properties, by the early 2020s some of the most popular stories and characters in the history of fiction had entered the public domain anyway. Here are 25 examples — but keep in mind that there is a difference between characters in the public domain and works in the public domain, because characters’ later appearances may still be protected by copyright, or authors or their representatives made trademark certain characters, or terms. (Also, while the underlying character might be in the public domain, a famous version of the character may not be. You’ll see some famous examples of all these “also”s below.)

Iconic Characters in the Public Domain

These characters were created so long ago that their original texts are now in the public domain and no longer protected by copyright.
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