Can I Write Nero Wolfe Stories Now That They Are Public Domain?

Some of the Nero Wolfe stories are now public domain: the first one, Fer de Lance, was written in 1934, putting it in the public domain as of 2009 even with our ridiculous 75-year copyright law. I’ve been thinking of updating the Nero Wolfe novels along the lines of a post I did way back when (see quote material below. Could the Wolfe estate stop me, legally speaking?

I wrote “Too Many Cooks” for Teemings. No one told me that it was actionable…

Actually, I think it’s 95 years after publication or 70 years after the author’s death.

You’re also going to want to make sure that the characters themselves are in the PD. Some of the Rex Stout stories may be, but someone else may own the rights to the characters, and since there have been various depictions of them, it’s going to be worth looking into before some humorless lawyer comes looking for you.

I’m not sure that’s a legal defense …

Copyright terms are complicated.

Assuming some stories are PD and some are not, you’ll need to make sure you only source the PD material. I recall there was a case involving Sherlock Holmes, when some of the stories were PD and some not. It was claimed that the character Holmes consisted of all of the stories, including the few still under copyright, and therefore any sequels needed permission. But I can’t find a source for that now and I don’t remember if that argument was successful.

You can’t assume something’s in the public domain in the U.S. unless it was written before January 1, 1923.

Gone With the Wind was in the paper the other day because one of Margaret Mitchell’s heirs left his share to the archdiocese of Atlanta. It was written in 1936 and its author died in 1949, but it will not be public domain in the U.S. until 1931 under current ridunculous U.S. copyright laws. The Catholic church’s share alone is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars per year in revenue, which is ironic because Mitchell stopped attending Catholic churches many years before she died.

What is the point of a work going into the public domain if no reference can be made to the characters in it? How can it be considered in the public domain under those circumstances?

You could print and sell copies of such works with paying a royalty.

Then it’s not in the public domain, is it?

Yes it is. Anybody could do it. You may recall a few years back you couldn’t tune to a television channel in December without seeing It’s A Wonderful Life. The copyright had expired and it could be aired by anyone without paying royalties.

Right, no royalties, anyone can air it, so it’s in the public domain.

Hmm, my initial quote above should have said ‘without paying a royalty’. I suppose I caused some confusion that way.

This was certainly my impression, which is why I was surprised at the thread title. If any of the Nero Wolfe stories are in the public domain, it’s news to me. Presumably Exapno Mapcase and/or one of our other resident experts will be along soon to clarify.


I’m pretty sure DYUtB meant 2031.

Don’t start planning on this yet.

Rex Stout died in 1975. Assuming his copyrights on the Nero Wolfe stories were renewed (a fairly safe assumption, since they remained in print his entire life), the copyright would last until 2050 (1975, the year he died + 75 years).

Robert Goldsborough obviously had someone’s permission.

From wikipedia:

“If Wolfe had a favorite orchid, it would be the genus Phalaenopsis,” Robert M. Hamilton wrote in his article, “The Orchidology of Nero Wolfe”, first printed in The Gazette: Journal of the Wolfe Pack (Volume 1, Spring 1979). “Archie notes them in eleven adventures. … Phalaenopsis Aphrodite is mentioned in seven different adventures by Archie, more than any other species. This may have been Wolfe’s favorite.” Wolfe personally cuts his most treasured Phalaenopsis Aphrodite for the centerpiece at the dinner for the Ten for Aristology in “Poison a la Carte”. In The Father Hunt, after Dorothy Sebor provides the information that solves the case, Wolfe tells Archie, “We’ll send her some sprays of Phalaenopsis Aphrodite. They have never been finer.”

Surely this is a mistake. Phalaenopsis is virtually a houseplant. Even I can grow them.
Wolfe could have sent her plants, and they would grow on her shaded Southern windowsills. :dubious:

It’s pretty technical, but characters may be treated separately from the main work. For example, the old Superman radio shows are public domain, and anyone who wants to sell them on a CD or produce a podcast of them or whatever can do so. Superman as a character, however, belongs to DC Comics and the heirs of Joe Siegel. So if you decide to produce an “All-New Adventures of Superman” radio show, DC’s lawyers may decide to have a conversation with you about using their stuff without asking. This post explains the rather convoluted nature of the Superman issue. Granted, it’s about Superman and not Nero Wolfe, but it gets into the fact that it’s not just Superman, it’s a whole bunch of other things like who owns the back story, related but separate characters, and so forth. Here is another cite. Any cite you can find about the Siegel and Shuster vs. DC Comics legal brouhaha gets into the fact that Superman as a character is separate from the comic books, radio show, TV show, movies, and any other stuff that happens to feature Superman.

Detective fiction, on the other hand, is a different kettle of fish, at least from a cultural perspective. It’s not uncommon for the family or estate of whoever owns the rights to a detective character to hire another writer to continue the series, either under the writer’s own name or as a ghost writer under the original author’s name. Robert Parker wrote Poodle Springs, which is a Phillip Marlowe novel; Phillip Marlowe was created by Raymond Chandler. This was an authorized novel. However, there is a significant body of fanfic that features Golden Age detectives, and from what I can tell, the copyright holders are perfectly OK with this. In fact, there is a whole site of Nero Wolfe pastiche.

That being said, I’m not technically wrong in my analysis of the copyright situation. The copyright holder may well decide that it doesn’t like what you’re doing with their characters and tell you to stop doing it. But from what I can tell, you probably won’t have any problems. Just keep it respectful.

Oye, I’m in trouble…