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UPDATED: Can You Write the Sequel to Someone Else's Book?

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NOTE TO READERS: AFTER WRITING THIS Q&Q I READ A COPYRIGHT LAW THAT DIDN'T JIVE WITH MY ANSWER, SO I CONTACTED AN ATTORNEY TO SET THINGS STRAIGHT. GLAD I DID, BECAUSE I WAS OFF. AFTER SOME DIGGING WE FOUND THAT THE GREAT GATSBY WILL ENTER THE PUBLIC DOMAIN IN 2020, NOT 2010 AS I ORIGINALLY STATED. I'VE UPDATED THE ANSWER BELOW.

Q: Do I need permission to write a sequel to a famous book (in my case, The Great Gatsby) or can I just write and sell it? —Becky B.

Q: For all books that fall under copyright protection, yes, you need to be granted permission by the copyright holder. The holder is typically the author, the author's family or the publisher of the book. Without attaining the rights, you can't sell/publish a sequel. Period.

(Wow, did I just pull out the single-word sentence for emphasis? I certainly did, so I must be serious!)

That's the bad news. The good news for all who want to write sequels to their favorite books is that thousands of old books have had their copyrights expire. It's why Gregory Maguire had no problem peeling away at The Wizard of Oz (public domain since 1956) to produce Wicked and Son of a Witch. And John Gardner didn't need permission from anyone to write his Beowulf interpretation, Grendel (public domain since, well, before any of us were born).

To know when a copyright expires, you need to understand the rules established by the U.S. Copyright Office (which are very confusing, so I’ll try to sum up). Last I checked, work created before January 1, 1978, has a copyright life of 95 years from publication or 120 years from the work’s creation—whichever comes first. If it were published in 1978 or after, and the author is named and registers with the copyright office (whether it’s his real name or a pseudonym), the copyright term for the work is the author’s life plus 70 years.

Now, onto your real conundrum: Is The Great Gatsby part of the public domain? Gatsby was penned by F. Scott Fitzgerald and published in 1925. Because it was published before that magical year of 1978, the copyright won’t expire until 95 years after it was published. And, if my math is correct (which it usually isn’t, so I double-checked with my friendly solar-powered calculator), The Great Gatsby will become part of the public domain in 2020. So you’ll have to hold off a few more years to sell your sequel.

Brian A. Klems is the online managing editor of Writer’s Digest magazine.

Have a question for me? Feel free to post it in the comments section below or e-mail me at WritersDig@fwmedia.com with “Q&Q” in the subject line.

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