Posts Tagged ‘Yoe Books’

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The panel presented above comes from Steve Ditko’s 2011 comic Sixteen, published by Robin Snyder, and while the book’s title may be disarmingly straightforward, its themes are indeed complex and build off ideas that its artist/writer has been exploring for years. All you need to know to grasp the (perhaps tenuous) connection this piece has with this particular installment of our “Just Pay Ditko!” series, though, is that its main character,  a guy named Leder, is fed up with being double-crossed and ripped off and decides that the time has come to do something about it. And what we’re here to talk about today is quite possibly the biggest rip-of and double-cross in comics history (not that it doesn’t have plenty of competition, since the comics industry has been an ethical sewer almost from the outset).

Recently, we’ve been exploring various matters of copyright in relation to the Ditko work that has recently been reprinted by Fantagraphics Books, Yoe Books, and others, and examining the question of just how “public” some of the supposed “public domain” material that’s been included in these  Handsome (and expensive) hardback volumes really is. Today, I’d like to take that line of questioning one step further and ask whether or not any of it should really be considered PD at all.

Consider : the underlying reasoning  behind exactly why Ditko’s 1950s and ’60s work for Charlton Comics, in particular, is considered to be PD rests in the belief that it was “work for hire” material that has seen its rights, previously held by the publisher, lapse. But what if it was never really “work for hire” to begin with?

If you’re like me, you’ve long held the notion that all comics work for the major and minor publishers, until the advent of creator ownership, was strictly WFH stuff. Why, outfits like Marvel, DC, Charlton, and others were so fucking brazen about this that they even stamped WFH contracts on the back of artists’ and writers’ paychecks up until the late 1970s, effectively forcing creators to give up all rights to their work if they chose to endorse, and thereby cash, their checks. Sign your life on the X if you wanna eat, buddy.

Pretty sleazy, right? Sure it is. But what if those “work for hire” contracts actually stipulated something else entirely?

Patrick Ford, a noted comics fan and historian who’s been studying these issues a lot longer than I have, recently shared some rather interesting information that I had not previously been aware of — namely that these infamous “paycheck contracts” didn’t explicitly spell out the terms of a true “work for hire” arrangement at all!

The simple fact is,  until the 1976 revisions to US copyright laws came into full effect in late 1977/early 1978, comics publishers didn’t even use the term “work for hire” at all. True WFH, you see, stipulates that the publisher not only owns the rights to print a creator’s work, but owns the original, physical pages of work themselves. Those “paycheck contracts” — none of which, by the way, have ever even been able to be produced for, and therefore entered into evidence in, a court of law — actually said nothing about Marvel, DC, Charlton, etc. assuming ownership of the original artwork they were publishing, only that they were paying for the specific rights to print that artwork. So who owns it? Well, considering that Marvel got damn serious about finally returning all that original art they’d had laying around in their offices for years early in 1978 (unless your name was Jack Kirby, in which case they tried to hang onto all your work until their knuckles were bloody), I’d say it’s pretty obvious — the publishers knew the artists were the actual owners of their work, and that all they owned owned the right to run it in their comics publications.

All of which begs the question — if the publishers themselves came (okay, were forced to come) to the realization that they didn’t own the physical artwork itself, why does the retroactive determination that pretty much all old comics work fits the “work for hire” designation hold any water at all? Quite clearly, artists like Steve Ditko who were busy cranking out pages for Marvel, DC, Charlton, and other publishers prior to 1976 had never heard of the term “work for hire” because the publishers themselves never had and didn’t even refer to the artwork (and scripts) they were purchasing as such! So if the artists, writers, etc. of the comics in question were not, in fact, signing “work for hire” agreements in the years prior to 1976, why should that work be subject to WFH status now? And why would the rights to it that have supposedly “lapsed” into the public domain truly be viewed in such terms since the creators of this “lapsed” work weren’t signing away rights that even could “lapse” at any point since the publishers themselves never really owned those rights (beyond the rights to print it, distribute it, and sell it)?

Obviously, this situation is a mess. The whole idea of retroactively declaring any material to be “work for hire” is problematic in both practical and ethical terms, and for decades now comics creators have seen a standard applied to their contracts after the fact that was not reflected in the language of the contracts they originally signed. Retroactive WFH is a gigantic hustle that works entirely in the publishers’ favor, and the kicker is — everyone in comics knows this.

Fortunately, at least one good idea (and no, I don’t count “let’s reprint as much of this stuff as we can get away with until somebody says something!” as being a “good” idea) for how to deal with this fairly has been offered — I don’t know who came up with it first, but I’m giving credit to veteran comics editor/artist/iconoclast Mort Todd, since I at least heard it proposed from him first. We’ll call it “The Mort Todd Solution” — unless he objects, of course — and its rather elegant in its simplicity. Simply put, it’s this : if the original “work for hire” contracts for any given comics work can’t be produced, then the rights to that work should default to its creators.

Yeah, there are various equities that would have to be worked out — what percentage is owned by the writer, what percentage by the penciller, what percentage by the inker, what percentage by the colorist, what percentage by the letterer, etc. — but wouldn’t a messy situation that at least resulted in the creators of comics material being paid be preferable to a messy situation in which only the publishers are being paid? When it comes to the subject of this series series specifically, Steve Ditko, we’ve seen how various publishers of his reprinted work approach the whole idea of just paying the man for what he’s done entirely differently. Mort’s idea would put to rest all these various and sundry “we paid him,” “we didn’t pay him,” and “I offered to pay him — really, trust me, I did!” scenarios because Ditko and his collaborators would have owned the material from the outset and been free to negotiate a publishing deal that would have guaranteed them payment. Can anyone honestly say this wouldn’t have been a preferable starting point when it comes to putting together reprint packages of old comics work?

Well — anyone who isn’t a publisher, at any rate?

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Those who haven’t followed Steve Ditko’s work published by Robin Snyder over the course of the past quarter-century may find some of the titles of the books curious — Public Service Package? Seriously? What’s that all about?

All I can say is, if you read the stuff, the titles do make a kind of sense. And I’d like to thank those who have been chiming in over on Rob Imes’ “Ditkomania” facebook page for the “public service” they have provided me in terms of giving me  some answers to the numerous (okay, unending) questions I’ve been asking in this series. For instance —-

Greg Theakston, who has published a fair amount of public domain reprints under his Pure Imagination label over the years, was generous enough to inform me that the reason behind the apparent 1960 “demarcation year” when it comes to reprinting Charlton comics is because, amazingly enough,  the “brains” at Charlton were either too cheap, too lazy, or too much of both, to actually file registrations with the copyright office up until the very tail end of 1959! This only sounds crazy if you don’t know that publisher’s history, I guess. After that, though, things get murkier. Apparently,  in the ’60s Charlton actually did their proper copyright filing, but the wording they used varied from publication to publication, sometimes even from issue to issue with regards to a particular publication, and the legal weight said wording holds today is the determining factor (or at least one of the determining factors) when it comes to whether or not material from that period can be reprinted. Theakston has done what all publishers should do and actually hired somebody to research the state of various copyrights before going ahead and determining what he is and isn’t able to reprint, and while I haven’t heard from anyone connected with Fantagraphics Books or Yoe Books, the two main purveyors of Ditko reprint material at the moment in addition to Marvel and DC, in regards to whether or not they also do the sort of legwork Theakston does, my best guess is that they probably must, otherwise they wouldn’t be going to press with this stuff.

So, there’s one question answered.

But it gets even more muddled just a few years down the line — according to J. David Spurlock, who’s busy co-ordinating the publication of a comprehensive collection of Wally Wood’s legendary witzend publication along with the aforementioned Fantagraphics (a project we’ll be discussing more in the very near future in this series because it’s the kind of ethically sound venture that all of us, no matter where we stand on the various individual matters we’ve been discussing here up to this point, will be able to enthusiastically support — so stay tuned for more details!), the actual cut-off point for Charlton stuff to be reprinted without any sort of fear of legal reprisal is more like 1963-64, not 1960, although why that would be I honestly I have no idea, apart from the fact that it has to do with an extension granted on behalf of reprint material about — I shit you not — Sonny Bono. Still,  regardless of what the guy who gave us “I Got You, Babe” has to do with anything, it’s something that, again, I’m pretty confident most —hopefully all —  publishers are taking into consideration before “green-lighting” various Charlton reprint projects from this period.

Also worth noting here is the fact that of the rights to former Charlton properties that DC didn’t secure, the lion’s share were scooped up by Canadian publisher ACG, particularly in regards to much of the horror and western material, and the rights to some of it did, in fact, end up with Steve Ditko and Robin Snyder, which probably explains why the Charlton material they’ve presented in various reprint packages over the years has always run with copyright notices attached (although why much of that stuff has appeared elsewhere without proper copyright info included remains, at least to this point, a mystery to me). It may also be worth pointing out  that it was none other than Snyder himself who arranged at least most (if not all) of the sales of Charlton’s copyrighted properties, so his meticulous attention to detail in terms of including notices in the reprints he put out under his own name is certainly understandable.

The next bit of info that Mr. Spurlock shared is indeed fascinating — he explained that while it may or may not be the case that various Charlton copyrights have lapsed DOMESTICALLY, the fact remains that they’re still in force INTERNATIONALLY, which is why some publishers have shied away from this work altogether. Think about it — if a single copy of a Charlton reprint book that features characters or stories that ACG holds the international rights to sells outside of the US, the publisher of said material would be opening themselves up to a potential lawsuit from ACG. Such a lawsuit may not be worth their time or effort, though, which leads to the final point Spurlock made, namely —

Some publishers simply put this stuff out THINKING that they will PROBABLY get away with it, even though the copyrights on much of the material they’re publishing are still very much a going concern. I didn’t ask which particular publishers are engaged in this kind of chicanery, since singling out any particular entity as being involved in something illegal has never been my intention here, but if this is correct, all I can say to any publishers who might be doing it is — shame on you. In fact, double-shame on you, because you’re not only screwing over the legitimate rights-holders of the work you’re putting out, you’re screwing over Steve Ditko and other Charlton writers and artists whose work you are claiming to be in the public domain when it isn’t. That kind of reckless behavior, if it is indeed occurring (and I sincerely hope it’s not) only strengthens the hand of Disney,  Time Warner, and other monolithic, soulless corporate entities who are working night and day to get PD shut down across the board. If we don’t want to lose the entire concept of public domain altogether — and it would be an absolute tragedy if that happened — then we need to proceed cautiously. We need to dot all our “i’s and cross all our “t”s like Greg Theakston is doing. PD is hanging by a very slender legal thread these days, and if we abuse it, we’re could wind up losing it. This ain’t the wild west, folks. Or at least it shouldn’t be.

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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.