On History: Copyright Searching

By | Tuesday, January 07, 2014 4 comments
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.

Some of the books I'm looking at here were actually published by Timely. You know, the folks who are known these days as Marvel? As near as I can tell, this particular set of stories were never renewed. I can find all manner of other Timely books from the same era -- Captain America Comics, Patsy Walker Comics, Venus, etc. -- but no references to the titles I'm interested in. But, it's still Marvel. Which is now owned by Disney. Do I risk publishing a book that I'm pretty sure is in the public domain? One that, if it is owned by anybody, it's owned by one of the largest intellecutal property holders in the world? I'm thinking that might not be a gamble I want to take.

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!
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Matt K said...

You might add that this is all complete crap. It's absurd enough that copyright can potentially go on and on forever, these days. The fact that a lot of dusty old works that no one else is even paying attention to might or might not have concealed "mines" awaiting the unwary… and that there's really no effective way to determined the real status in many cases… is absurd-plus.

I like to hope that the public domain has reached its nadir, that the next copyright-extension attempt can be blocked, and that such might prove the beginning of a turnaround on intellectual property. One can hope.

Anonymous said...

On the benefit to society side, there is a very good chance those comics your talking about are already scanned and online somewhere.

It's almost to the point where you can go ahead and write about those comics and if anybody is interested, can find and download those issues, knowing that these are probably in the public domain.

Even if they aren't, Disney is such a large company that it's not worth it to them to republish the stories so they'll sit unread. The original creators are likely not around anymore and wouldn't be paid even if they were.

Alexa said...

My rule of thumb is that if it's not on digitalcomicmuseum.com, it's not public domain.

However, if you do find scans of it, check the indicia to make sure you have the right title--you know how comics publishers would change the titles of comics mid-run because of something to do with postal rates attached to "new" magazines, and I imagine some were copyrighted under the old title rather than the actual title.

Of course, it can't hurt to ask Marvel legal. Granted, the only email address I can find is the one for infringement reporting (infringements[at]marvel.com), but they might appreciate someone contacting them because they're trying NOT to infringe.

Anonymous said...

Judging from the Blackstone cover you use, you're looking at licensed comics, so you'd want to check if the licensor is still around.
In cases of properties licensed by Timely/Atlas, the original property is now PD (Like Casey: Crime Photographer or Suspense), so the associated products are also PD.
BTW, Blackstone was published by several different companies including Street & Smith, and EC!