I've been getting back into one of my research projects, and was talking with someone who had interviewed many of the creators involved before they passed away. I was telling him about my project and noted that I was hoping to reprint a few of the issues these guys had worked on as part of it. After all, they were printed back in the 1940s and most of the publishers involved have long been out of businesses. To which he responded that he was certain a good number of them had their copyrights renewed.
Naturally, I got worried. I thought I had checked this a while back, and was pretty certain many of them had fallen into the public domain. So I spent a good chunk of Saturday night and Sunday morning trying to re-check things.
I immediately discovered that the issues he had told me were still under copyright were. They'd been renewed in 1968, just a hair shy of the 28 year renewal deadline at the time. After hours of scouring copyright renewal records -- and how awesome is that those are online now -- I can't find any references to the other issues I was concerned about.
So that means I'm good, right?
Well, not necessarily. As the saying goes, "the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence." Just because I can't find anything that says those books were never renewed doesn't mean that weren't; it just means I can't prove they weren't renewed.
See, because even if those issues are in the public domain, Disney can still make a claim of ownership. For that matter, anyone can make a claim of ownership. Your average schmuck off the street won't have anything resembling evidence to back the claim up, nor would they likely have lawyers willing to argue the case, so they'd likely be thrown out of court pretty quickly. But Disney? There's enough superficial evidence that it's going to at least get a hearing, and it's frickin' Disney -- they've got more lawyers than they know what to do with! So even if I have every legal right to republish those old Timely issues, it could still wind me in a costly legal battle.
So that's something I'm kicking around still. I'm much more positive the three issues published by an almost non-entity in comics publishing and who's long been out of business is much less of a legal threat. Those three issues might well be sufficient for what I'd be interested in.
The reason why I bring all this up is that the research that I'm doing, or rather the research that I'm trying to do, is focused on the comics themselves, their creators and their production. And yet I still find myself taking on the role of a law clerk, just to be able to publish my research and findings in some form of context. Comics history is a broad topic, by no means limited to which creator contributed which pieces to the final story!