Re-tellings and Copyright Infringement


This might be a topic that’s been done to death, but considering how surprisingly illegal fan fiction can be, I’d love to hear some perspective.

Something that’s always been somewhat popular is fairy tale re-tellings -I love many of them myself- and I’d like to write some. I have an idea to write a sort of series of them, none of them inter-connected or part of the same world, essentially all stand alone, just the same concept: surprising twists on classics fairytales in a richer fantasy world. In particular, I plan to start with Cinderella, but I also have plans for Beauty And the Beast, The Little Mermaid and others (Yes they’re overdone, I don’t care :stuck_out_tongue: I still think I’m doing something new with it).

What I want to know though, is how much can be similar before it’s legally questionable, in particular concerning Disney? Disney takes a lot of liberties with its retellings, but they are by far the most popular. When I say Beauty and the Beast most everyone thinks of the Disney version, and I’d say most modern re-tellings hark more to the Disney version than the original fairy tale. How similar can it be?

I’ll see if I can give a more concrete example. I know the very name “Cinderella” isn’t copyright to Disney, it’s from the original fairy tale, so it’s fair game. But what about in a little mermaid retelling with a protagonist named Ariel? That’s not original to the classic fairytale, that’s all Disney. Furthermore, what if I wanted to do a tagline for the book like “It’s a Dangerous World To Be a Part Of.” That’s obviously a direct and intentional reference to the Disney version. Is something like that a no-go, even if the story is different enough from the Disney version?

I know of a few books out there that are directly related to the Disney versions, but those were commissioned by Disney themselves. (I believe it’s something that the writers auditioned for, and they’re typically given outlines to follow and are almost like ghost writers in that sense, but not quite.)

Also on the topic of re tellings, how about ones done of other classics, like Jane Austen’s novels? I believe they’re all free now, are they not?


I heard that Disney will sue you if you use their characters. I believe they’re all trademarked.


Stick to what’s in the original stories, or versions of them that are old enough to be out of copyright. Or more specifically, don’t use anything that’s only in the Disney version.

Anything where the author has been dead more than a certain number of years (70 in most countries) is in the public domain, and anyone can do whatever they want with it. More recent adaptations or retellings of old stories might still be in copyright, but the author of one of those can only claim copyright over what they added or changed - they can’t stop someone else from going back to the original and doing their own version of it.


You are fine if you stick to the old fairytales which are in the public domain. I’ve done a fairytale series. BUT don’t go anywhere near the Disney versions - they will sue you and are very active at protecting the Disney brand of their fairytale characters.

With regard to Jane Austen, variants of her stories (known as JAFF) have a niche and hungry following. They also command much higher prices and popular JAFF authors sell novels at $6.99-9.99. I know of one popular JAFF author pricing her work at $14.99 and its still selling a good number of copies.


I second this. Im retelling a dark Peter Pan and I was never worried about copyright, to begin with. This version is way different from Disney. Plus, the version I’m doing is technically public domain now. Also found out that Peter Pan was started in Canada…? Could be wrong. Just interesting to think about.


Fairy tales are public domain.
However, translations, new daptions like Disney or later published bind ups may not be. That should not limit you to base a story on the (collected) original fairy tales as long as you don’t plagiarize looks or the names of the seven dwarfs (fx. From Disney’s adaptions) etc. also. They’re probably trademarked.

I think the tagline will break copyright as it belongs to Disney and not from the original. That make it theirs to my understanding.

About Jane Austen, her works published over 100 years ago are public domain. Translations/editions published later is probably not. They should be fair use.
Just a mention that there’s different time required for public domain over the world so you should check into it.

This link may help.

(Me spending forever to write it, so everyone else have said the same)


Okay, so The Little Mermaid is okay but stay the heck away from names like “Ariel”, “Ursula”, “Prince Eric” and do as much from the original fairytale as possible over the Disney. I don’t think my plot is similar enough to draw attention at all, it’s more name’s and references I’m worried about. I’ll drop my intended tagline and hit the drawing board again.

Thank you everyone! That information on Jane Austen retellings is really helpful as that was something else I was interested in. Good to know there’s a market for it!


Peter Pan is under copyright for certain things. The copyright was left to Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital in the UK.

Here’s the info

Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity has a right to royalty in perpetuity in the UK, granted by the Copyright Designs & Patents Act (1988) (CDPA). It applies to stage productions, broadcasting and publication of the whole or any substantial part of the work or an adaptation of it in the UK.

This right does not apply to derivative works such as sequels, prequels, spin-offs or to extracts.

The play Peter Pan is still in copyright in the US until 2023, and in Spain until 2017.

The copyright has expired everywhere else so, apart from the play in the US and Spain, it is considered in the public domain. Note: Fair use would apply in the US for use of characters etc in derivative works.


With the twists and ideas I have, it’s fair to say my retelling is probably not bad or at risk. The original Peter Pan was technically written in 1902 and 1904.


Only if they’re not trademarked – and I guarantee Disney has trademarked any original characters and characters with an original twist.

“Fair use” is a defense you use in court, and it’s decided case by case. It won’t keep you out of court. If you use anything Disney and declare fair use, you will be dragged into court, and it will cost you a fortune to fight a battle you will likely lose.


When Walt Disney himself was working on his movies, he preferred using Perrault’s version of the fairytales. Anything you find in his stories are technically public domain. There are so many retellings of fairytales, the most popular being Perrault and Grimm. But many cultures have their own versions. I also suggest reading other fairytale adaptations that have recently been published over the last decade or two.


Yeah, looks like it. But only for titles

Trademark is a different beast. There is no time limit on a trademark: as long as you use it, you get to keep it. On the other hand, trademark rights are more limited than copyrights. All they cover is the right to use certain logos and product names in certain categories of business. What can and can’t be trademarked is complicated, but there aren’t a lot of trademark rights to be found in Neverland. The name Neverland has been in generic use for so long that it’d be hard to enforce as a trademark. The name Peter Pan has been registered as a trademark for things like [peanut butter but that doesn’t prevent anyone from using the name in a new novel about the character. As for putting the name in the title of a new work… that’s starting to get touchy. And if you choose to swim in those waters, you’ll need to watch out for both deep-pocketed claimants to the name: GOSH and Disney.


im surprised disney didnt trademark peter pan.

can someone dig out what kind of names disney has trademarked?

we have very common names like belle in beauty and the beast, jasmine in paladin and more…


Disney can’t claim the name Peter Pan as they don’t own it. The character is an invention by J.M.Barrie. The copyright for this story is also a special case, as there was something about it in the author’s will. The book is not public domain in all countries.


To show how serious Disney is on protecting their characters (from )

Disney holds trademark and copyright registrations for Snow White, a Disney fairy tale character. In 1989, Disney sued the Academy of Arts and Sciences when the Academy used an entertainer to portray Snow White without Disney's permission in its opening number for an Academy Awards telecast.


They did:


I could see a princess named Jasmine in an Aladdin retelling being copyright, judging by what people are saying here. At least risky enough that it’s not worth using.

Belle I think should be fine though, because that’s the name of the girl from the original tale. As long as you didn’t make her act and look too much like Disney Belle, I should think you can just claim you took it from the original, no? Just like a lot of Cinderella retellings still use the name Cinderella (Or just Ella, or even just Cinder).


Exactly. Read the original and keep it in front of you. Make SURE that is your inspiration.


I agree, for characters like Ariel or Elsa, I wouldn’t use those names but others like Belle, Cinderella or Rapunzel are their original names and as long as the story is based on the actual fairy tale it would be pretty difficult to get through with claiming them, even for Disney.


Disney owns the trademark for Cinderella