Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Could "The Sub-Mariner" be in the public domain?


Take a look around the local comics chop and you will notice that in some cases the same public domain superheroes occupy slots on several companies character rosters. You see, some golden age publishers didn't always secure their trademarks or copyrights, and many latter day corporate entities have used the "apparent" availability of these old favorites to launch entire lines of comic book titles that trade upon name recognition of these characters within the hobby or in other instances, simply incorporated these golden oldies into their own already established fictional universes.

Long established industry fables, old rumors, innuendos and sadly, outright lies have often muddied the waters for those intrepid souls who have endeavored to determine what IS legal and what ain't.

Recently Cash Gorman traveled to our nations capitol on holiday, and he took the opportunity to visit the Library of Congress to conduct some research on select golden age characters, titles and company's. This link will take you to his posted findings, and some surprising information .... if you are interested.

Ye Catacombs editor says that it is "recommended" reading for fans of golden age heroes!

4 comments:

Wayne Skiver said...

Interesting reading, but not complete, definitive research. I mean no disrespect. Theres no such thing as "partially" public domain for one thing. That sentence near the beginning may well have soured my view of the rest of the article. A property either is or isn't. I've done (and still do) a great deal of research into what/who is/isn't pub domain as I deal with many such characters myself. Trademark is different than copyright, and many times checking into one can get muddled with another. Its murky territory at times and YES there are companies who try to throw enough disinformation and legaleese out there to keep other publishers guessing enough to steer them away from material. (Conan and the works of Robert E Howard are such properties for example)

Its a topic that can't be discussed in a simple reply, but suffice it to say it pays to do the research and cross-reference it thoroughly (exhaustively even). I've certainly been shocked and surprised myself at some of the things that have turned up.

Chuck Wells said...

Wayne, Cash more than makes clear that his remarks are NOT intended to be the final word on this subject and he goes even further to encourage people to do their own research on public domain properties.

Go over to my links section and click on "Hero Goggles" to read additional comments by Mr. Gorman about this matter, and I believe that he also indicates that he will be updating the post with still more information that he was able to discover on his visit to the Library of Congress.

I have a particular fascination with the heroes of a specific golden age publisher, and have even jointly written a four issue mini-series utilizing them which sits awaiting an available artist to bring it to life, so you can see how this type of research - whether fully accurate or not - would catch my attention.

I give Cash his props for an effort that has engaged him for a number of years.

cash_gorman said...

The thing is when referring to "public domain" it can mean different things depending on just what you're referring to (copyrights to specific works which is fairly cut and dry, copyrights to characters which is shakier ground depending on the court decisions, and in regards to trademarks which cover completely different things).

In regards to copyrights of serials, it is possible for one comic with a character to be public domain and another comic with the character not. Superman comics are copyrighted and renewed, however the Fleischer Superman cartoons are not and are public domain (and thus you do not need permission to make copies or market the video though there are special steps to be taken to make sure you don't violate trademark law).

Marvel has renewed most if not all of the Sub-Mariner tales in regards to copyrights and definitely has the trademarks locked up. But, that does not change the fact that the original comic and story was never registered nor renewed. If I had a copy of that story, I could copy and sell it without Marvel Legally Justifiable to complain.

Thus it becomes a murky issue when talking about a "property". I could find no records of any Quality copyrights renewed BEFORE 1951, and the vast majority of Fawcett titles also had no renewal notices on the vast majority of their comics prior to 1950s other than a small handful of Captain Marvels.

Then you have the other angle of properties like the Green Mist in Iron Fist, Project Superpowers, and Malibu's Protectors (based on the Centaur characters). Those versions of the characters are copyrighted and trademarked but just because of that it doesn't make the original comics any less public domain or prevent other creators from also using those characters such as Erik Larsen in the pages of Savage Dragon using the GA Daredevil (identical in appearance to Death-Defyin' Devil and using the Marvel trademarked name inside the story but not on the cover). So, in a sense as a property in and of himself, the Black Terror would be indeed only partially public domain. As he is drawn and appears in Dynamite's book is protected as is his Eclipse mini-series by Dixon and Bereton and AC has a version of him as well. But, they're all derivative works based on public domain comics.

Old Time Radio is similar in that radio broadcasts themselves were not copyrightable at the time. The radio scripts however could be and some companies like Street & Smith did just that. They also adapted from and to the comics and pulps. Some companies like Radio Spirits also copyrighted the cleaned up/remastered versions of the original radio shows just as Turner pulled similar stuff with cleaning up and colorizing old b/w movies allowing them to claim "copyright" on the new versions. The originals are still public domain, but it gives those companies some ownership and legal teeth if people aren't careful with which works they are dealing with.

Where I am shaky with understanding as much of this has come out is the derivative works aspect of copyrights and public domains and how it works in regards to characters from serial work. As one law website discusses copyrights in regards to characters it does allow copyright protection to characters in regards to the fact that characters are defined by their stories. Remove Atticus Finch from "To Kill a Mockingbird" and there's no story and any use of Atticus in another story is by default referencing "To Kill a Mockingbird" even if no overt reference is made. What does that mean if a comic book character has had some appearances renewed but majority of them not? The individual comics are definitely are or are not on the case by case basis. But, the character? If all a company needs to lock up a character, why bother to register and renew each and every issue, just do the one.

Wayne Skiver said...

Email me Chuck (if you don't mind) tell me what characters and maybe I can answer the question of if they are or are not PD. I'm no amateur at this. I've spent several years researching Public Domain properties not only for myself but for others as well.