Call For Comments: Publishing the Public Domain

From Mav: So if you don’t live in the tiny corner of the internet that follows creators rights within the comic book publishing world, you probably missed a story a couple weeks ago that few of us who do live in that corner were obsessed with. Bill Willingham, creator of the comic Fables, decided to release his trademarks on the series and pronounce the entire thing public domain in order to stick it to publisher DC comics, who he has long had a dispute with over his royalties and other issues. He basically got a days worth of the comic book world’s press cycle before DC responded with “bullshit… it is not in the public domain and it’s not his to give.” Ignoring the underlying issues DC and Willingham have with each other (and that’s a whole other minefield), the underlying question here is “does Willingham have the right to release the intellectual property.” His contention is that he owns the characters and can give them to the world if he wants to and that DC only owns the copyright on the stories already published. Thus, he contends that DC can reprint the stories he’s already written just fine, but that the rest of the world now has a right to create whatever stories with the characters they want. DC disagrees. Where is this going? Honestly, it’s not clear. Where this lands is anyone’s guess. That’s a lawyer problem.

But it leads me another interesting question. Aside from the question of can “a random creator” release the trademark said creator co-owns with a corporation, there’s a more interesting question (to me) of was Fables specifically really “trademarkable” in the first place. Ok, obviously the answer there is yes… at least legally. But should it have been? Because the entire concept of Fables is based around fairy tales that have literally been in the public domain for centuries. Yes, they were Willingham’s take on the characters, but on some level Snow White and the Big Bad Wolf are Snow White and the Big Bad Wolf and we all have as much right to build derivative works as anyone else. My version on those characters are no more owned by DC and Fables than they are by ABC and Once Upon a Time.

And in a world where we’re now producing films like Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey I want to talk a bit about what it means to make content that is an extension of public domain content. I recently taught a class where I talked extensively about Pride & Prejudice and Zombies, and Bride & Prejudice and Bridget Jones’ Diary which led to a student of mine informing me of the existence of Pride and Prejudice: But Mr. Darcy is a Vape God. I’ve not read it… but obviously I need to. And probably so does Hannah. Is it interesting or is it just a cash grab? Does it matter? That’s kind of the thing I want to discuss.

I’ve asked friend of the show A. David Lewis to join us for this episode. David has done quite a bit of publishing of comics based on extending public domain characters including his graphic novels Kismet, Man of Fate and The Prophet. So I want to know what you think. Should someone be able to own content that is based on public domain content or is that very idea antithetical to the purpose of the public domain even existing. What are the key examples we should be thinking about? What other issues do you see. Let us know in the comments below.

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