Q: I am thinking about writing a series of YA novels featuring the characters and world of King Arthur and Robin Hood. Does anyone own the rights to these historical/fictional characters and settings, or are they considered in the public domain?
A: This is both a simple, and a tricky question to answer.
As a general rule of thumb, works created prior to 1923 are likely to be in the public domain. But, when works fall into the public domain, anybody is free to copy and build upon them. And that new “built upon” work, (or at least the original components contained therein) IS entitled to copyright protection.
The King Arthur legend dates back to the middle ages, and as such is not protected by copyright law. The trouble is, the story has been retold so many times, by so many authors, poets, playwrights, filmmakers, etc., that what's become part of the King Arthur story may have a much more recent source. So, unless you're telling the oldest versions of the story, without reference to the material contained in these newer versions of the tale, you'll have some research ahead of you to determine the true source of the stories you tell.
See the wikipedia article http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King_Arthur to see what I mean.
The Robin Hood story is similar. There's debate whether this person actually existed, or is simply a character of legend. Either way, the story dates back to the early middle ages (and thus no longer protected by copyright), but it's been retold so many times, by so many people, that care will need to be taken to ensure that whatever material you use in telling your stories comes from the older versions, and not one of the 20th or 21st century versions of the story.
Here's the wikipedia article on Robin Hood http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robin_hood
So, the underlying characters and “world” embodied in these stories is likely in the public domain, but to the extent newer material finds its way into your novels, you may need to obtain permission.
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