Some books and movies are so moving or interesting that people like to image what happened before or after the book or movie took place. When this occurs, people write books that follow on the books or movies, known as fanfictions. Fanfictions can be high-quality labors of love written by people who possess an encyclopedic knowledge of stories and are often shared with others. The problem with fanfictions is that they rely on legally protected works (the original book or movie). By writing stories featuring someone else’s characters is treading on risky legal ground.
If a thing is in the public domain then it can be used freely in any work. This includes characters such as Robin Hood, Hercules, and Tarzan (which is why there are so many movies and books starring these characters). There are several ways a story can enter the public domain, the author could give up their rights to the work or the copyright could have expired after enough time passes. For example, in the US an author retains their rights over a work for the entirety of their life, plus the 70 years that follow their death. If the work is published anonymously or for hire, the rights last 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation (whichever is shorter). This varies from country to country but is generally the norm.
There are many public domain characters who are famous because of facets added by later works. For example, Universal studio made Frankenstein's monster memorable by adding their unique take on the character and Disney took public domain stories like Aladdin and made the character come to life. This means that you can write about Aladdin, but if you add some catchy songs a funny genie and a smart monkey you are encroaching on Disney's copyrights, and Disney will almost certainly come after you.
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