Lupin Has One Huge Advantage Over Superman

Unlike most twentieth century heroes, Arsène Lupin is in the public domain

Arsène Lupin, the famous French gentleman burglar, is having a moment right now. There’s a hit Netflix series, featuring a dazzling performance by Omar Sy. And the long-running Lupin III anime series has a new CG-animated movie, that recently came out Stateside after having been out in Japan for ages. I was only dimly aware of this character, created by Maurice Leblanc, until recently—but now Lupin is everywhere.

Why are we being blessed with so much excellent Lupin content right now? There’s one simple reason: because unlike most pop culture icons of the twentieth century, Arsène Lupin is in the public domain. That means Lupin belongs to all of us, which is true of any iconic character in every sense—except for legally. Anyone who has a cool idea for a Lupin story can go for it, without needing to worry about IP lawyers. This is a huge advantage over Superman, Captain America, and a slew of other characters who were created before World War II and still keep a firm grip on the public imaginary.

* The following rant is best read while listening to “Lupin the Fire” by Seamo, which is a banger. You’ll thank me later.

There’s a whole online discourse about public domain characters, which is easy to find. Basically, keeping popular heroes under copyright fosters innovation up to a point, after which it stifles innovation. You or I might have a bloody fantastic idea for a Wonder Woman story, but we can’t sell it for money unless AT&T/Warner Bros. likes the idea too. After a while, these copyrights stop being an incentive to create more characters, and become an excuse for rent-seeking. (And in fact, if Warner Bros. no longer owned Superman, they’d be more incentivized to create new characters, not less.)

But I’d like to make a more expansive argument: being in the public domain allows for radically different versions of a character to coexist. Exhibit A being the French and Japanese Lupins, who take the basic concepts of “gentleman burglar” and “old legacy” and remix it in very different ways. No spoilers, but in the Netflix Lupin, Assane Diop is a fan of the classic Lupin novels who uses them as inspiration in his quest to right some wrongs (and fight back against systemic racism). Whereas the anime character Lupin III is actually the grandson of the original Arsène Lupin, stealing the one artifact his grandfather never managed to.

Sure, we can have Tyler Hoechlin’s Superman almost at the same time as Henry Cavill’s, but they’re still basically the same character. Every now and then, we get some wilder experiments, like Batman Beyond or the Lego Batman Movie. But just imagine if anyone who loved these characters could share their versions of them, in any way that they wanted. Including in for-profit ventures. Experimental films, bizarro cartoons, novels in verse, whatever.

The thing is, when you own a character for long enough, they become an asset to be protected—because any unpopular or weird instance of the character can diminish interest in future outings. And these characters exist to sell toys and merch, as much as movie tickets or streaming subscriptions.

The legendary comics writer Christopher Priest (who wrote Black Panther and Quantum & Woody, among other things) once wrote that if you ask why Batman did X instead of Y in a particular comic, the answer is nearly always “toothpaste.” That is, someone at DC Comics felt that if Batman acted in a certain way, then they’d be able to use him to sell more tubes of toothpaste. Creative decisions are dictated by a character’s ability to sell largely unrelated stuff, as well as ensuring their continuing popularity.

With a public domain character, nobody is responsible—or at least, solely responsible—for maintaining the hero’s ability to appear on cereal boxes. And that means you can take bigger swings.

But like I said earlier, these characters already belong to all of us in every other way. It’s become a cliché to say that superheroes are our modern mythology, replacing Zeus or whoever. But if that’s true, then there’s something weird about having a shared mythology that we could get sued for invoking in the wrong way. It just makes sense, on a gut level, that any character you and your grandparents both grew up loving should be free.

And before anybody says it, nope—I don’t think my own writing should be public domain, not while I’m still alive. There’s a whole other argument when it comes to a living creator wanting to exercise control over their own brainchildren, and that’s not what I’m talking about here, at all.

We already live in a world where fan-fiction, and fan films, can push corporate-owned stories into delightfully offbeat directions. But these things exist with the sufferance of the IP owners, as the would-be makers of Star Trek: Axanar found out the hard way. But just imagine if every one of your grandparents’ favorite characters could give rise to lavish productions as adventurous as Lupin and Lupin III: The First.

We could live in that world, if only our copyright laws were a little saner.


My stuff:

The wonderful audiobook shop Libro.fm has named me as their latest Bookstore Champion! I made a video in which I talk about what bookstores mean to me, and why everyone should be supporting their local indies.

The other day, I took part in a discussion about science fiction writing at the National Air and Space Museum. Margaret A. Weitekamp, curator and department chair in the museum’s Space History department, moderated a conversation with Christopher Paolini, author of To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, and me. I promise this is the last time I will make anyone look at my kitchen—I've since figured out a much better backdrop for video stuff. But it was still a lovely conversation, and you can watch the whole thing here:

And meanwhile, remember that glorious artwork I revealed a while back featuring four characters from my upcoming young adult book, Victories Greater Than Death?

Well, the brilliant artist Ines Możdżyńska, who created those character images, decided to go one step further, and also create an image of the patch that appears on every Royal Fleet uniform. Basically, the left sleeve of every uniform contains this patch, which reads “WE GOT YOUR BACK,” along with your designation and any honors or demerits. And there’s a picture of the Joyful Wyvern of Scanthia Prime. (As for the right sleeve, that can feature whatever picture, or text, you want to program into the fabric. It’s a chance to express your individuality, because uniforms don’t have to mean conformity.)

This is exactly the way I pictured that patch in my head, only much, much better:

And finally, I still have three (!!!) books coming out in 2021:

If you pre-order any of these, you are my best friend for all time.