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Script Adaptation: Public Domain vs Private Domain

It’s challenging to break in as a screenwriter. On the business side of things, you can only dream of an extensive amount of cash for approximately 90 pages of stuff you made up. Furthermore, that is with the ultimate goal that they'll find and spend much more money to make a film or series out of it.

That is a profoundly dangerous undertaking. On top of that entire headache, there comes the notion of adaptations. Nowadays, what isn’t an adaptation? In this article, let’s discuss script adaptations and the difference between public and private domains. We’ll highlight the differences, the importance of understanding the two, and copyright law.

Still from 'To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)'. Photo credit: The Hollywood Reporter

What is an Adaptation?

An adaptation is defined as a movie, television show, or play adapted from a written work, typically a novel. Since the industry has been around for so long, many films are adaptations of older films. For example, you have three different film adaptations of the 1929 anti-war novel All Quiet on the Western Front, coming out in 1930, 1979, and 2022.

Popular Adaptations

● To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

● Little Women (2019)

● The Color Purple (1985)

● The Wizard of Oz (1939)

● The Remains of the Day (1993)

● Sense and Sensibility (1995)

● Forrest Gump (1994)

● Persepolis (2007)

● The Godfather (1972, 1974)

If you’re an aspiring writer, you might’ve read a written work or seen an older film that you’d love to adapt. Remember, as challenging as it is to sell a script; an adaptation has an added layer of difficulty. Much of that comes from copyright law and knowing the difference between public and private domains.

What is a Public Domain?

There are two areas to focus on when discussing domains, the first being public domains. The phrase public domain isn't in the U.S. Copyright Act. It is, notwithstanding, ordinarily used to allude to content that isn't protected by copyright law. Works in the public space may be freely used without getting consent from or paying the copyright owner.

How Something Becomes Public Domain

● The duration of copyright in work has expired.

● The U.S. federal government produced the work.

● The work isn't fixed in a tangible form (speech or lecture never recorded)

● The work didn't include a proper copyright notice before March 1, 1989

● The work doesn't have sufficient originality

What is a Private Domain?

The private domain is the opposite of the public domain, which falls under the private sense. If something is private, it belongs to a specific individual or association that might permit others to utilize it with consent or if they pay for it. It’s usually the latter with film adaptations, making it more challenging for private domain-adapted scripts to sell.

How Something Becomes a Private Domain

● Copyright protection for all works created after January 1, 1978, lasts for the author's life plus an additional 70 years.

What Can Be Copyrighted

● Literary works

● Musical compositions

● Dramatic works

● Pantomimes and choreographic works

● Artwork

● Audio-visual works

● Sound recordings

The Importance of Understanding the Two

No matter how experienced or confident you are in your writing; there’s a lot connected to screenwriting that’s more than the writing process. Knowing the difference between the private and public domain is part of that process. There are a lot of intricacies within these two areas, especially if you hope to develop a script that falls under either umbrella.

It’s never ideal to have the thought process that whoever will buy your script will worry about developing it, and you have nothing else to care about. With that mindset, you’ll be less likely to break into the profession, and as a writer, you’ll want to do everything you can to benefit your potential success.

Copyright Law is Complicated

As straightforward as this article has tried to paint it, copyright law is complicated. Let’s envision you want to go all in and go with a public domain source material. There’s a constant question of wondering if you missed something since there are severe consequences for your career if you’re accused of plagiarizing.

Even if something is in the public domain, you always run into the issue of another adapted work having a legitimate copyright on the work you’ve based your screenplay on. Hence, you need to be very careful with copyright no matter what the case is.


Ultimately, whatever route you go with depends on what you’re most passionate about. If you feel you can pitch a private domain to a studio with a solution for obtaining the rights, then feel free to go for it. On the other hand, public domains might not be as challenging to sell but more difficult to differentiate from other adaptations, on top of countless other issues.

Regardless, the best advice is to research your work and see what’s plausible. Don’t give up on your writing dream, and feel free to reach out to a copyright lawyer who knows more about the subject. Either way, pitching a script is like a job interview, meaning you have to do plenty of research leading up to it, including public and private domains.


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