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So, I understand that ancient mythologies and their characters such as Zeus etc are part of the public domain. However, what happens to individual interpretations of ancient texts?

For example, a sacred tablet that has been translated from another language and interpreted in many different ways. Would these characters still be public domain and fair use? More importantly, would there be any copyright infringement issues on the plot itself if I were to write a book, screenplay etc?

Non-fiction writers have published and copyrighted books with their translations and interpretations of these texts (in recent years) and I'd like to avoid drama. Having said that, many books by various authors each discuss the exact same thing, so I don't see why I can't?

In short, if I were to write fiction with the same characters, same names, similar plot, but with my own twist, sub-plots, descriptions and in my own words would I have a problem? Could I have a bibliography at the end of a fiction book citing these established materials and would that help?

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if I were to write fiction with the same characters, same names,

Same as the mythology, or the same as recent authors? If it is an ancient text, or even a text out of copyright (like Shakespeare), then you can copy characters and names, you are free to take the characters from Hamlet and write an adventure with them as children, perhaps introducing new side-characters for playmates and villains, etc.

If another author already did that, you can copy the idea of Shakespeare's characters as children, but not the parts they invented.

Copyright doesn't cover general ideas, or plots. In the US it doesn't cover anything first published in 1923 or earlier.

Here is a detailed explanation about what is covered, and for how long, in Findlaw.

Currently the copyright term for individuals is life of the author plus 70 years. It is different for "works made for hire" (by employees or contractors, basically an exception for businesses, under the notion that there may be no specific author, or the business is not going to die), there it is 95 years from the date of first public display, or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever comes first.

You don't have to worry about copying ancient works more than 200 years old, but you do need to be careful about are translations that may still be in copyright, of ancient works.

I also suggest clicking on your "copyright" tag to see other answers about this.

  • Hi Amadeus, thank you for your answer! My main confusion is, as you stated copyright doesn't cover general ideas, however, if a translation is still under copyright wouldn't the ideas expressed in that translation be copyrighted? And if not what is? I've browsed through many of the answers on tags but can't seem to find anything related to transforming non-fiction into fiction and copyright matters around that. Thanks again. – Orchid Oct 25 '19 at 10:42
  • No, ideas in a just published book are not copyrighted, what is protected is the specific expression of those ideas in words. The Hunger Games is inspired by Roman Gladiatorial games, actual fights to the death for the entertainment of crowds. You too can copy the idea of modern gladiators with modern equipment, but you can't call them "The Hunger Games"! Nor should you call your villain "Snow" or your hero "Katniss" or your world "Panem". You cant copy text from the books for your description. You can't write a new story in that world with the original characters, (continued) – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Oct 25 '19 at 11:13
  • even if you change the names: that is stealing the original author's work and imagination. Note that whether you copied will be determined by humans, there are NO technicalities that can get you off, like changing the names from Katniss, Snow and Peeta to Catnip, Iceman, and Peter, or rewording every line in your own words. If the jury sees that you are in violation. But the overall idea of modern gladiator games with a young female hero is open game. Do not copy text, and in general do not steal any details. If an idea in a translation was in the original, also fair game. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Oct 25 '19 at 11:32
  • Completely understand your Hunger Games example and wouldn't dream of doing that. However, moving away from fiction into non-fiction. Say I wrote about ancient Egypt, names such as "Nefertiti", "Osiris" are fair game? Correct? My main question is surrounding mythological beings that have been written about both in fiction and non-fiction. In regards to fiction, often times the stories are similar, but each writer has put their own twist. In regards to non-fiction, writers are also researchers that come up with theories and give evidence. Is it off-limits to re-create those within fiction? – Orchid Oct 25 '19 at 11:53
  • Mythological names are likely fair game, unless they were invented by somebody. "Nefertiti" was a real person, circa 1350 BC, thus free to use. Recreating a real theory with fiction is fine, just don't plagiarize any writing from the real theory, if it is not your own. If it is your own theory based on research, feel free. I'd imagine most theories of what happened IRL are like a "general plot", which cannot be copyrighted. The idea that Aphrodite was a real woman or a specific historical figure cannot be copyrighted, just like Rowling doesn't own the idea of a magic school for kids. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Oct 25 '19 at 13:25
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As others intimated you can do pretty much anything you want with ancient / mythological characters. However, what you cannot do is use a representation from a film. e.g. You can use Thor but you must not make him similar to Marvel's Thor as the studio will claim your character is based on their copyrighted character.

  • Thank you for your help Surtsey :) – Orchid Oct 26 '19 at 8:20

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