When I presented on fairy tales at Desert Dreams in April, and when I went to Comicon in June, I was surprised by the number of questions asked about the copyright status of myths and fairy tales. So let’s get into it.
First, I’m not a lawyer, I don’t even play one on TV. So nothing I say here can be taken as absolute gospel. If you want that, hire a lawyer. Better still, go the free option and talk to a local librarian. They love to talk about this stuff, have been fully trained in it, and will not charge you for saying hello to them.
Aside from that, this is what I can say. Myths and fairy tales are old enough to be considered in the public domain. The stories we’re talking about date back hundreds if not thousands of years, and copyright didn’t exist. (The concept of authorship really didn’t exist, either, but that’s something else.)
Here are the caveats. Translations are copyrighted to the translators. The translators work with the original text, which is not copyrighted, but their translations constitute their own original work, and is protected by law. The only way you get out of this one is if the translation is older than copyright law (a number of sources out there qualify since they were translated in the 1800s).
Caveat number two is to look out for companies that have changed the stories and created copyrighted entities. The seven dwarves are part of the original Snow White story. They’re up for grabs. However, Disney named them, and copyrighted those names, so do not touch. The best way to avoid this one is to dig up the original, public domain source. If it appears in that version, you can use it. If it’s not there, someone probably made it up and copyrighted it.
Again, if you have doubts, go to your local librarians. They’ll be able to help you make sense of the often confusing copyright situation, and help you find good mythology books at the same time.