Can I use someone else’s characters in my new original story?

Can I use someone else’s characters in my new original story?
 
No, you almost certainly cannot use another person’s characters directly in your work unless your treatment of those characters could be considered a parody, satire, or somehow education or critical of the original characters. 
 
However, you can use someone else’s characters if the work you’re taking characters from is in the public domain. For example, you take characters from L. Frank Baum’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and put them into your own story because that novel is in the public domain. But if a work is not in the public domain and instead us copyrighted, only the copyright owner may create a new work with those characters or allow someone else to write a new story with the characters.
 
Very famous, iconic characters can be protected by trademark protection in addition to copyright protection. While trademark law is substantially different than copyright law—and is too complicated to distill here—the general thing to understand is that trademark law’s purpose is to protect consumers against buying fraudulent goods.
 
For example, Mickey Mouse is trademark of The Walt Disney Company. Unlike copyrights, trademarks never expire. Instead, trademarks last as long as the trademark holder uses the mark in commerce (for the purpose of identifying a product or service for financial gain, self-promotion, etc). Therefore, an unauthorized product featuring Mickey Mouse (or a very similar character) on the packaging would mislead consumers into thinking the product was sponsored by The Walt Disney Company. Trademark law allows Disney to stop the sale of this product.  
 
Sarah Briggs discusses trademarks as it relates to a public domain text like The Wizard of Oz: “Trademark exemption is typically granted by the courts to characters whose importance is deemed crucial to a location or company's financial success; a character perceived to ‘exist’ outside the public domain text. Currently, Dorothy Gale and her friends are without links to any specific estate or company, leaving them open to any artistic interpretation.”
 
But remember: ideas can’t be copyrighted. So your characters can resemble the idea of another’s characters, but not their specific expressions. This is a fine line. 
 
If you are writer who would like guidance about using another person’s characters or ideas or life in your work, feel free to contact us at New Media Rights at (619) 591-8870 or support@newmediarights.org for free, pro bono legal assistance.
 

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