“Just Pay Ditko!” Part Nine : Oh, Those Pesky Copyright Questions

Posted: August 21, 2013 in comics
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Warning! If questions about who owns what and how and why they claim to own it put you in the frame of mind Steve Ditko is shown to be — uhhhhmmm — “enjoying” in the legendary self-portrait shown above, you might want to bug out on this whole “Just Pay Ditko!” series right now, because things are going to be taking a turn for the either detailed or pedantic (depending on your point of view) over the course of the next few entries in this series.

Yeah, that’s right — just when you thought it was safe to pay attention to things here at Geeky Universe again, I’m back after about a week away and talking about my “next few entries in this series” when at first I had promised this was “only” going to be a ten-part affair. What can I say? The mystery has deepened and taken a few unexpected turns in the time I’ve taken a break from writing about this stuff to concentrate more completely on researching it. As things now stand, we’re looking at probably going 15 or 16 installments before this is all over — and I use the term “over” very loosely, trust me, because it’s becoming more and more clear to me that, well — there just ain’t no clarity to be found on some of these matters. It sometimes feels like I’ve fallen down a rabbit hole and, rather than clawing my way back up towards the surface as any reasonable, right-thinking person would do, I’ve decided to dig down even deeper to see if maybe I can, I dunno, tunnel my way to China or something. If I never see daylight again, I suppose I’ll probably regret that, but for now —

First question : why, exactly, is much of what we assume to be “public domain” material — stuff which is therefore freely available to reprint for anybody who wants to do it — actually considered as such? If you’ve been kicking around the comic scene for a long time, you’ve probably thought, much like I did until quite recently, that when it comes to most of the older Charlton Comics material — you know, the kind of thing being put out by Fantagraphics Books, Yoe Books, and others in their recent Steve Ditko hardcover collections — that it’s a pretty open-and-shut matter. In much the same way that George Romero’s omission of a proper copyright blurb on the very first print of Night Of The Living Dead has resulted in anybody who feels like it putting that legendary film out on DVD, the story goes that Charlton’s copyright indicias on their various publications were so sloppily-assembled that they just doesn’t hold any legal water any more and, in fact, probably never did.

That could be true, But what if it isn’t?

Let’s be honest here for a minute — DC paid a tidy sum for the rights to former Charlton characters like Blue Beetle, The Question, Peacemaker, Captain Atom, etc. Why would they do that if there was no need to?

Similarly, why would they have such a confusing stance at present vis a vis Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt — another Charlton property they once claimed ownership of? They never did much with the character, to be sure — Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons changing his name to Ozymandias and having him hatch a plot to save the world by destroying most of it notwithstanding — and in 1995 either sold or allowed it to lapse back into the hands of (depending on which version of events you read online and subsequently believe) its creator, Pete Morisi, but even though we’ve already established that there are multiple takes on this single transaction, it’s still not so simple : DC not only retains the rights to the short-lived Peter Cannon series they took out for a test run on the early ’90s, they also still claim exclusive reprint rights to the character’s 1960s Charlton-published stories. It’s only new Cannon material, apparently, that Morisi is allowed to pursue with the deal he has in place.

Again, if the Charlton rights are such a mess, why would DC even be in a position to strike such a convoluted agreement with the character’s creator? Why couldn’t they both publish all the Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt shit they wanted — and why couldn’t anyone and everyone else, for that matter?

One way or another, 1960 seems to be a turning point for what is and isn’t PD as far as Charlton publications go, and again, I can’t really begin to fathom why that is. If you look at some of the sites that allow uploading of old public domain comics, like http://digitalcomicsmuseum.com , or have a gander at Bob Heer’s excellent Ditko blog http://www.ditko.blogspot,com , you’ll notice that there are plenty of 1950s Charlton stories presented in their entirety, but nothing after 1960. Yet it’s widely considered by fans that the ’60s Charlton stuff is, legally speaking, the most “freely available” of the bunch because that’s when the “fine print” in their comics became really half-assed and indecipherable.

And yet — many of the post-1960 stories that have been reprinted in the oversized hardcover collections The Art Of Ditko and The Creativity Of Ditko were also presented in various black-and-white publications put out by Steve Ditko and Robin Snyder many years back, where they ran with copyright notices attached even though no such notices appear in the newer, more expensive (and yeah, much nicer) volumes.

So what’s going on? I honestly don’t know. As I mentioned in my previous piece here about the Konga material specifically, I don’t think anyone at Yoe Books or IDW Publishing is a legal idiot. They must feel that they have some fairly solid ground to base their belief that they are only reprinting PD stuff on. But I’d be very curious to know what that ground is, and why others have chosen to either shy away from this material or reprint it with proper copyright notices attached. And it’s also worth pointing out that, at least so far, all of the material presented in Fantagraphics’ Steve Ditko Archives series has been, you guessed it — pre-1960 stuff. I’m wondering, naturally enough at this point,  if Gary Groth and Blake Bell plan to continue these books once they reach that (apparent, at any rate) “watershed” year.

I know what you’re probably thinking right now — “come on, Ryan, nobody would be stupid enough to reprint comics work that’s actually owned by somebody else,” but hey — it’s happened before, and given that Charlton isn’t around to provide the best paper trail of who that “somebody else” might be, would it really be all that shocking to find out material was being published with the attitude of “hey, we’re pretty certain this is PD stuff, and even if it’s not, I doubt anyone will say anything about it?” I don’t think this is very likely to be the case, but I can’t rule it out as at least a  small possibility in my mind until I’m able to get some more definitive answers.

Which is where you, dear reader (whoever you might be) come in. I’m hoping somebody who’s better versed in these matters than I am can either comment here or over on Rob Imes’ “Ditkomania” facebook page and really break down how and why some folks feel safe in categorizing all post-1960 Charlton work as public domain while others don’t. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Is there any way to even know for certain?

There are other, perhaps even bigger, questions at play here, as well — questions like why this stuff would ever be considered to be PD in the first place if it’s never even been conclusively proven to have been “work for hire” material, why retroactively adjudicating  and/or assuming that it is “work for hire” ensures that the writers and artists who produced it are just going to screwed over yet again, etc. — and don’t even get me started on the trail of “ownership” of the Warren material that Dark Horse/New Comic Company is currently reprinting (you know, in books like the Creepy Presents Steve Ditko volume that got me started on this whole thing in the first place). Sometimes it all feels like it’s just too damn much to come to grips with. But I’m trying — and if you’re still along for the ride, then your patience, as well as any expertise you might be able to bring to the table, are very much appreciated.

All of which is my way of saying that even though I dug this hole of my own volition, I’m not sure that I can get back out of it without some help.

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