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Public Domain Superheroes? 251

Posted by michael
from the stretch-dude-and-clobber-girl dept.
SerpicoWasTaken writes "Here is an interesting article about a group of comic book heroes from the golden age that are in the public domain. Apparently, a bunch of golden age heroes were never copyrighted and just faded into obscurity. The article also contains a long discussion of copyright and the public domain. It is an interesting read for all those interested in the public domain." Update: 09/25 17:51 GMT by M : Link removed at the request of the site maintainers because it's killing their server. Update: 09/25 19:02 GMT by M : They've put the document on a static page instead of a cgi script. :)
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Public Domain Superheroes?

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  • That's gotta be a record!
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday September 25, 2002 @09:27AM (#4326705)
    No-one's even had a chance to comment. Apparently, the massive weight of our impending presence has reverse causality (See top ten physic experiments).
  • Dang...that doesn't take long :(
  • by Spencerian (465343) on Wednesday September 25, 2002 @09:33AM (#4326743) Homepage Journal
    Maybe there's a good reason for these to remain obscure.

    "Look...in the sky! It's ChickenMan!"

    "Guess that villain's leaving him a bit henpecked."

    "He flies so smoothly...it's poultry in motion!"
  • by Anonymous Coward
    linux superheroes.... although everytime I try compiling superman.c I get errors in krypton.h
  • "Never copyrighted"? (Score:4, Informative)

    by nuggz (69912) on Wednesday September 25, 2002 @09:38AM (#4326783) Homepage
    Apparently, a bunch of golden age heroes were never copyrighted

    I thought copyright was automatic. It doesn't need to be registered or anything, it just is.

    To become public domain, the copyright must either expire, or be explicitly declared so by the copyright holder.
    • True, but it's a lot harder to prove copyright infringment if you never applied for it.
      • by sql*kitten (1359)
        True, but it's a lot harder to prove copyright infringment if you never applied for it.

        Copyright is created literally by appending (c) $YEAR $AUTHOR to it. There's no central registry of things that are copyrighted - you're thinking of trademarks (TM).
        • IAAL, and thought I'd point out that "(c)" doesn't do squat. Really. You must either use the copyright symbol ("©"), and/or spell out the word "Copyright."

          For what it's worth, I thought "(c)" would work, too, until being informed otherwise by a lawyer who specializes in intellectual property.
          • by jarrell (545407)
            Sorta, yes and no... The (c) may well *be* a perfectly legal symbol - the problem is no one has taken someone to court on a copyright case that uses it, and had the (c) not being a legitimate mark be challenged, and had the court rule that it was indeed legit. The law only specifically mentioned the copyright symbol and the word. However, thanks to a court decision just like I was just mentioning, C in hexagon is perfectly valid. The court ruled that it was obvious from the context what the person intended to convey, and thus it was a perfectly legit display of copyright. Given that precedent, there's every probability that (c) will be upheld, given the widespread use of it, should the issue ever come up.

            Of course, if you want to be *sure*, and it's important to you, use the real logo, or spell out the word, and you won't be spending money later on being the test case...
        • There's no central registry of things that are copyrighted

          Actually, that's what the Library of Congress is for the US. Historically, you had to send a copy to the LOC to get copyright; currently, you have to if you're registering a copryight, which is required before you use the law to enforce it.
      • Not really, you just point at your old magazine, then point at the new Hollywood movie, and say `when will I get my cash?`.
    • by bluGill (862)

      Today everything you create is automaticly copyrighted. It wasn't always that way though. If I remember rightly until the late 1970's you had to claim copyright in a specific way or it was automaticly public domain. It was easy to do correctly, worst case was $25 plus a few stamps, no lawyer, but you had to do it. (companies would of course use a lawyer)

      Laws change, the laws that applied back then count in this case, not the laws today.

    • by Entrope (68843) on Wednesday September 25, 2002 @09:50AM (#4326866) Homepage
      Since 1978, copyright is automatic for new works. Works published before then but not explicitly copyrighted entered the public domain, and remained in the public domain after the law changed. See BitLaw's discussion [bitlaw.com] of the topic.

      This is in contrast to trademark, for which you must always file to get legal protection.

    • This is true in the USA AFTER 1976. Before then, the copyright laws required the creator to put 'copyright creator' and register it in order to get copyright. If either was omitted, it was public domain.
    • Copyright only controls the right to copy the works: reprints of the existing materials. Trademarks cover the superhero names, logos, etc. Trademarks are much tougher to keep going, since in the USA you must actively defend them (TrademarkMan to the rescue!) or you lose them.
      • in the USA you must actively defend them (TrademarkMan to the rescue!) or you lose them.

        I'm kind of unclear how this works. The way I understand it is this: I create a superhero, and I call him PublicDomainMan. I make it clear that he's not actually IN the public domain, but is trademarked, but I will allow anyone to use him if not for anything horribly offensive.

        So someone comes out with "PublicDomanMan Saves a Puppy" and I don't sue for infringement, because I don't WANT to.

        Then, someone else comes out with "PublicDomainMan rapes a puppy while helping Adolf Hitler gas Jews" and I feel that's in poor taste and I would like to sue. Is it true that I can't sue, just because I didn't sue the first guy?

        If this is the case, it's no wonder so many companies are rat bastards, if the only way to keep ownership of your property is to BE a rat bastard...

  • by _LORAX_ (4790) on Wednesday September 25, 2002 @09:38AM (#4326784) Homepage
    Since the site is so hosed it's not even funny. So they remain obsure.

    -sigh-
  • by psxndc (105904) on Wednesday September 25, 2002 @09:39AM (#4326791) Journal
    A lot of people like writing stories about say... Transformers. What is FanFic and what is official gospel from Hasbro has a pretty clear distinction.

    Given that the characters in the article are public domain, is there any way to preserve the original intent of the character? I mean since they are public domain, one person could create a Black Terror that reinstates Nazi Germany. Another person create a Black Terror porno. If someone truly loved the character, how can the spirit of that character be preserved amid a landfill of junk?

    Look at Batman. 60's TV show Batman is an abomination to me. Batman to me is supposed to be dark and gritty. The guy watched his parents gunned down as a child. That has to have some serious psychological effects. To see Adam West's gut hanging out over his utility belt while he, supposedly someone that had honed his body to the limits of human ability, punched out the joker's cronies with splahses of POW! and BLAMM!... Awful. But that was what the company was pushing at the time. Since then, DC has brought Batman back to what he should be. If Batman became public domain though, there could be a deluge of 60's Batman stories written by anybody and the original nature of the character would be completely lost. How do you preserve it?

    psxndc

    • by GMontag (42283) <gmontag@@@guymontag...com> on Wednesday September 25, 2002 @09:58AM (#4326919) Homepage Journal
      Ahem...

      True fans of that show, like I, watched mostly to see the female characters. It was an extra-special bonus to see the female characters tied up too.

      That was my gateway media to bondage pr0n and I am GREATFUL that the show was on during my kindergarden/gradeschool years!
      • Mmmmm. Made me think of the episode when the Queen Bee and her scantily-clad "Honeybees" tied up both our heroes, after drugging them.

        I Never really understood why I found that episode so titillating until I became an adult.

        We need more thinly-veiled light BDSM fantasies in our children's shows.

    • A more pressing question might be, "why should anything be *preserved* at all?"

      Why not let culture change and grow so that it can be understood and appreciated by a the new society that's really its audience?

      It's not a simple questions, though the overwhelmingly popular answer these days is that everything cultural, from languages, to buildings, to superheroes needs to be preserved for all infinity. This certainly wasn't always the case! I think the very copyright laws that we love to hate here on Slashdot have done a lot to foster this notion (though it's a bit of a chicken & egg situation - the laws might just be in reaction to the attitudes already present).

      In any case, I think more people should really consider what's more important: preserving history, or actually building new culture, and letting the past influence the present (and thus the future) on its own terms, without being stuck on a pedestal of historicity.

      This might sound like hypocrisy, coming from a harpsichord player like myself, but it's an issue that I wrestle with every day, and have yet to come to a real conclusion.
      • by Damek (515688) <adam@@@damek...org> on Wednesday September 25, 2002 @11:05AM (#4327450) Homepage
        I agree with you - while still being generally undecided on a firm position regarding copyright, the position that tends to get ignored is that copyright wasn't a concern until we could so easily copy things right and left.

        For thousands of years of human history, culture was fluid and the past was history. Art is always something different in its own time from what it becomes once its time has passed. One might say the primary purpose of art is to influence the present to become the future, but once the present has passed it becomes the past. Any art you look at contains within it some hope for the future, even if only because its creator hoped that someone would experience it after it was created, but once created, art exists as something from the past, already created, immutable.

        But art is not always immutable - our perceptions of it change, and if we are discussing it, our discussion will change. Art influences us, and we influence all the art yet to come. The past exists as our soil, and we are the plants growing from it, but very soon we will wilt and decay into the soil, to become part of the history out of which the next generation grows. We, the past, will be incorporated into the structure of the future, but only if we allow what is created to decay into the natural "cultural soil" from which great things are born. If we hold our creations steadfast and immutable, never to change, then the only hope we are expressing is that the future is the same as the present and the past.

        Now that everything seems to be recorded for posterity, people are obsessed with obtaining the "definitive edition" or the "original version" of books, films, albums, etc. If anything this stifles creativity - One imagines that the definitive version of all these stories has been cast in stone, and one wants to own it. Perhaps we then lose our ability to imagine something different, something new. Why not take elements of what has been created, and reconfigure it to your own imagination?
        • by Alsee (515537) on Wednesday September 25, 2002 @01:23PM (#4328850) Homepage
          Culture used to be so fluid, but time just became too fluid! I think I just slipped through three non-adjacent timezones while reading that post!

          Either you're a temporal mechanics major or you're manic phase manic/depressive. Let me trim that down and read it as fast as you can :)

          You just said:
          while being is wasn't until thousands of years history was past was history is always different time becomes time passed. is present future once present passed becomes past. future after was once exists past already immutable.

          is always immutable change are will change are yet to come. past exists are soon will decay become history next generation past, will future, is decay are born. immutable, never change, then are is future is same present past.

          Now to be posterity, are original has been then different, new. has been.


          Wow.

          -
    • Figure out which authors write stories you like, and ignore those whose stories you dislike.

      Frank Millers's Batman is not any less brilliant because of the existence of Adam West's Batman.

      Worrying that someone, somewhere is doing something you dislike is not a productive use of your time.
    • You do realize that for many years, the Batman comic was incredibly campy as well, right? I mean, Batman, for quite some time, time-traveled quite extensively, fought villians in lairs that were filled with giant props ("Holy giant typewriter, Batman!"), etc.

      It was really only after years of that crap that he became serious again (in the early issues of Detective Comics, Batman was incredibly serious, and casually killed criminals).

      But it was during the campy years in the comics that the Adam West TV series was done.

      Kierthos
    • One could make the argument that if you recognize the current Batman as "canon" then you recognize DC as the current author or caretaker for the character. By that rational, the 60's series is also canon, because it was created with permission from DC.

      Most fanfics are easy to filter because they are created without permission from the owners. But if corporate ownership is your criteria, you are going to be stuck with Bat-mite, Man-Bat, the 60's bat-suit, and all sorts of other wackiness. If you narrow Batman to Bob Kane, then you ignore the first (true) Dark Knight Returns series, Alex Ross' recent work, Dick Giordano's Batman stories, etc.

      Original intent goes as far as Bob Kane. The rest is up to you.
    • Could Trademark be used to protect the character?
      This would not protect the stories/product but would limit someone from using conducting there business using the characters? Or maybe there needs to be some other type of IP protections that protects characters from being taken while letting copyright go back to its correct length.

      I for one am not liking with these ideas. Culture is built on myths and stories. If you can bottle and control the stories you can control the culture.
    • Given that the characters in the article are public domain, is there any way to preserve the original intent of the character?

      Yes, by having the reader exercise their power of judgement and selection.

      One thing to keep in mind, is that Batman is not real. He isn't a real person for whom there is an objective reality and history. Ultimately, he's just what you want him to be, in your own mind. So it's all up to you. You get to decide what is virtually real (e.g. "The Dark Knight Returns") and what is virtually fake (e.g. the 1960s TV show), in accordance with your platonic model of Batman.

      You can't silence other voices, but your mind will always be your own.

    • It seems to me that some of the more recent movies took away a lot of the initial seriousness,etc from the batman series. JC (a good comedian but one shouldn't shove him into every role just because he's popular) made a joke of the riddler, when I remember him more an a form of "intellectual badass". There was a fair bit of humour in previous eps, but much of it was a quite dark variety.

      And of course, the odd buddybuddy relationship between Batman and Robin, which was quite reminiscent of Ace and Gary [quicktimeflix.net] from Saturday Night Live (not that there's anything wrong with that).

      Quick Robin, back to the batcloset! - phorm
    • The same way you preserve, say, HCA's "Little Mermaid" as a poignant story about love and loss and a total absence of Jamaican lobsters.

      You can't. You just have to tell the story your way, and hope that more people will like your vision than that of $MEGA_ENTERTAINMENT_CORP.

    • Okay, so there's an example of a character under copyright being abused. Therefore, copyright stops a character from being abused in that way. ...

      Look at an old public-domain character: Heracles. Sure there's been a lot of crap with him in it. However, there's been a lot of good stuff, too, and the original nature of the character hasn't been lost.

      Or take, for example, Space Balls. Campy crap parody of Star Wars. Perfectly legal. If Batman was as serious as you claimed before the TV series, anyone could probably have made it and claimed the parody exemption.

      Copyright may protect the author's profits. It doesn't protect the author's vision.
    • Look at Batman. 60's TV show Batman is an abomination to me. Batman to me is supposed to be dark and gritty.

      Batman's current level of "dark and gritty"-ness is a fairly recent retcon. Some of the early stories were pretty goofy.

      Batman became public domain though, there could be a deluge of 60's Batman stories written by anybody and the original nature of the character would be completely lost. How do you preserve it?

      By letting the best stories define the character.
      • Sorry man, He was dark and gritty first 39 - mid 50's, then they made him campy and colourful later. Basically, around the mid 50's - early 70's he was colourful. The got dark again early 80's, late 70's.

        I mean, come on, the guy was in "Gotham City", he dressed in black, and the whole idea of the character was he was out for vengence for the death of his father. That's pretty dark.

        The campy Batman was cool too tho' in my opinion, they both have their place. I always thought that for a campy batman Adam West was the best. The dark Batman has never been done right, the closest was Michael Keaton; Val Kilmer and George Clooney always made jokes, I'm sorry but that's Spiderman, not Batman. Anyway....
    • Allow me to ruin the nature of Batman:

      "Batman ran down the alley, chasing the Dark Avenger. In a flash, Batman stopped, having sighted a huge lemon pie. 'Man, this is sure good,' Batman thought out loud, as the Dark Avenger escaped. 'I wonder where I can find more.'
  • Bugger! /.-ed!

    DISCLAIMER:I'm not really a GPL cheerleader (I avoid politics, really), just providing some fast food for thought.

    Though a character's history would be really erratic with a whole bunch of writers and artists doing their bidding with a GPL'd comic book hero(ine), it would provide opportunities for comic writers and artists to have a go at a story with a character they might not normally have a chance to. And that would definitely provide some interesting spins.
  • Its pretty easy to create a new public domain super hero - here goes!

    Captain Spooner - he's got big spoons instead of hands! His feet are normal though. He can scoop up loads of water, earth, wax, ANTHING and dump it on top of criminals!

    The Masked Kitten - Some sexy bint who runs around in a mask. She is NOT catwoman, because she wears a mask and is called 'huni' by her side kick 'Sheba' - who is actually her boss though neither of them know it. They were independent crime fighters when they first met at night while Sheba was kicking in a gang members head. The Masked Kitten liked her style!

    FatCowboy - less of a super hero than an anti-hero this dude just floats around farting at people and then taking their chocolate!

    Maybe /. should start a repository of public domain shite heros!
  • by Paul Bristow (118584) <paul@@@paulbristow...net> on Wednesday September 25, 2002 @09:49AM (#4326860) Homepage
    Something missing from all the DRM discussions is the notion of copyright expiration. There should be a way to automatically decrypt all protected content when the copyright expires... otherwise what is the point of the expiration date? It's strange how the fact that copyright expires is missing from all the DRM debates?

    Oh, and when does the copyright for the first movies and audio recordings expire again?

    • There actually are quite a few movies in public domain. Several Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton movies are.

      My wife points out that even once something has gone into public domain doesn't mean it is easy to get a hold of. Take music from Mozart, Bach, etc. Really the only way to get sheet music for them is to pay some company a whole lot of money to get their "arrangement" of the score.

      A lot of the same thing happened with these classic movies. A company had in its posession a copy of say "The Immigrant" by Charlie Chaplin. They drop in revised intertitles, or a new musical score (silent film remember) and copyright the new work.

      I know people have mentioned it before, but the Library of Congress should also act as a time capsule for materials without DRM protection so that when copyright does run out, there acutally is a chance for these things to pass into public domain like the law requires.

      Jeff
    • You must have missed the code fragment that implements it. Plus I'm sure they've got a patent on the "Eternity minus one day" detector.

      Ashcroft vs Eldred is the one to watch. If retroactive copyright extension falls, I'm not sure if Disney et al will spend the money to buy future extensions assuming their past falls out of the bag.
    • Who's missing it? I've always included the long view in my arguments against DRM, and things effectively similar to DRM (e.g. closed source, compiled, copyrighted software).
  • Comic Links (Score:5, Informative)

    by dolo666 (195584) on Wednesday September 25, 2002 @09:51AM (#4326872) Journal
    Here are a few links to comic stories I found about public domain.

    Greats of the Golden Age Comics [rogers.com]

    Golden Years Guide to Reprints (bright page) [tripod.com]

    Golden Age comic book reprints [fortunecity.com]

    When Works Pass Into the Public Domain [unc.edu]

    Octobriana Public Domain Comic [easynet.co.uk]

    Native Super Hero Contest [bluecorncomics.com]

  • Mickey Mouse (Score:3, Interesting)

    by peterdaly (123554) <petedaly.ix@netcom@com> on Wednesday September 25, 2002 @09:52AM (#4326883)
    It frustrates me how much copyright protections have been granted to, and stripped from us all in the name of protecting Mickey Mouse.

    We have two periods of Copyrighted material. BM and AM. Most BM (before Mickey) material is in the public domain, while all material AM (after Mickey) is protected.

    Never what the origional creators of copyright law intended.

    -Pete
    • BM and AM

      How about we string Micky Mouse up on a cross until he (or his copyright) expires. Then we can dump everything into the public domain and start a new calendar on copyrights.

      -
  • by SerpicoWasTaken (552937) on Wednesday September 25, 2002 @09:55AM (#4326899)
    Sorry, I should have said that the copyright was never renewed and the heroes faded into obscurity. Also, just as an aside, we also took down www.newsaskew.com - the Kevin Smith fan site. They host www.newsarama.com which is where this article came from.
  • by Big Sean O (317186) on Wednesday September 25, 2002 @09:59AM (#4326925)
    In other cartoon public domain news:

    The first Mickey Mouse cartoons would have eventually lapsed into the public domain if it weren't for the Sonny Bono law.

    And if you want a 'real' superheroes in the PD: the 1940s Superman cartoon shorts (produced by Max and Dave Fleischer, the guys who make the old time popeye cartoons) are also (apparently) in the public domain.

    The most disconcerting thing about the old Superman cartoons is that one of the villians had the same voice as Popeye! Gave me the willies.
  • Shazam! (Score:2, Interesting)

    by ch-chuck (9622)
    One of my faves Captain Marvel [ozemail.com.au] - and his firesign friends, The Caped Madman, Rocket Jock, Spy Swatter, Sleeve Coat, and Spike in J-Men Forever [benway.com]!
  • by macdaddy357 (582412) <macdaddy357@hotmail.com> on Wednesday September 25, 2002 @10:05AM (#4326975)
    Why is the site about golden age superheros down? Golden age super villains took it out. I suspect The Terror, Dr. Ironbeard, The Ktulu from Timbuktu and Bulgarian Boogeyman!
    • Arrrgh, we know who done it. But we're busy rewriting our SuperPowers to adapt to computer-age threat models, and we'll be back and kicking butt Real Soon Now. That's the nice thing about being Public Domain - Steamboat Willie can only do what his fat-cat employers want him to, but we can do anything we want!
  • by nizo (81281) on Wednesday September 25, 2002 @10:05AM (#4326977) Homepage Journal
    I propose that whoever invents the first working holodeck be made a superhero in advance (What, that isn't what the article was about? How would I know since it has been /.'ed into oblivion???)
  • by protektor (63514) on Wednesday September 25, 2002 @10:13AM (#4327057)
    So - who owns the heroes of ABC/WildStorm's Terra Obscura? No one, everyone and DC. Kind of.
    The characters who appeared in Tom Strong #11 and #12, including Pyroman, Miss Masque, The American Crusader, The Black Terror, the Fighting Yank, and Doc Strange (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Tom Strong himself). In the story, "Terror on Terra Obscura," Strong teamed up with Strange to rescue the heroes, who had been imprisoned by an alien of impossible power.

    To Tom Strong, the entire mission was somewhat surreal - to him, the heroes that he was helping to rescue existed on his earth solely as comic book characters, something like how the JSA existed as comic characters on Earth-1 to the JLA, back when there was an Earth-1 and Earth-2, or, if you want something a little more metaphysical, the existence of the heroes on the far side of the galaxy percolated through...ideaspace, where it was captured by comic creators on Tom Strong's earth who were imaginauts...or..something...

    The heroes are slated to get a return engagement in 2003 when Peter Hogan pens a Terra Obscura miniseries for ABC [with art by Yanique Paquette and Karl Story], utilizing the same characters on the same world. Ideally, interest will be high enough, according to Hogan, in the miniseries that ABC will launch the heroes of Terra Obscura in their own ongoing monthly.

    If you're the gambling sort, it's a safe bet that a solid 99% of the readers of the Tom Strong storyline thought that the characters were simply fruits of Alan Moore's imagination, heroes who were shared shades of similarity to "real" Golden Age comic heroes. After all, the proper archetypes were present - the patriotic hero (the Fighting Yank), the science hero (American Crusader), the "dark" hero (The Black Terror, renamed the Terror, who comes complete with young sidekick), the jungle queen (Princess Panther), the monster, the fire-man, and even the talking ape were there.

    The thing is, the characters weren't, or at least originally weren't the products of Moore's imagination - the heroes of Terra Obscura were, in fact, real comic characters published in the 1940s by Ned Pines under the Standard/Better/Nedor imprint(s). While the fact does little to change the story, it does raise a question or two. No, DC didn't quietly acquire another stable of comic characters as they had done with the Charlton characters in the late '80s by buying them outright - the Nedor characters are themselves in a unique position in terms of copyright: They are in the public domain, and can therefore be freely used by anyone. As an aside - in the ABC universe, the heroes are located on "Terra Obscura," a unique world which itself is an invention of Alan Moore, and is therefore copyrighted to DC/ABC/WildStorm.

    Before we continue, a little history lesson is needed on how things got to be the way they are.

    A Publisher of Many Names

    The heroes which are collectively referred to as "Nedor" heroes were originally published by Pines, who had three names for his publishing company over the years, Standard, Better, and Pines. As a company, Standard began publishing in 1932, and was the king of comics with adjective titles - Thrilling Comics, Thrilling Detective, Exciting Comics, Startling Comics - all were staples of Standard/Better/Pines over the years.

    From the early days, Standard employed editor Leo Margulies and Mort Weisinger, who took the ball and ran with it, in 1939 creating series after series, and hero after hero. Alex Schomberg provided dozens of covers over the series' runs. Standard's standard fair for the early '40s was pulp-inspired superheroes, but as Standard couldn't get a good footing against National Periodical Publications' stars of the costumed set, Superman and Batman (as well as the Justice Society) and others, and sales of Standard's hero line slipped, and by 1949, the company dropped costumed heroes, sticking to real-life adventures, funny animal books, and romance comics. Aside from the Nedor heroes, one character of Standard's original comic series remains alive today - Dennis the Menace.

    Like many of the comic characters created in the 1940s, the heroes of the Standard line weren't copyrighted. It wasn't necessarily a careless move by the publisher, just a simple business decision. Remember - this was in the days before the phrase "intellectual property" was even coined, and comic book characters were disposable commodities. One was created in order to sell comics to boys, and when its sales started to slip, another was created to take its place. "Progress" was the theme of the day, and no one would have thought to bring back a concept that was perceived to have failed - why return to something that the public clearly had passed on? Thinking of the better world coming tomorrow was the name of the game, and nostalgia had yet to become a pastime for individuals and an income stream for companies. Everyone, from the man on the street to comic book publishers, was looking for the next big thing, and had precious little time to spend on the old thing that no one wanted.

    At the same time, creators' right were largely unheard of, and the creators themselves were generally nose-to-the-grindstone workhorses, and no real interest or incentive to try to keep or reclaim their original work or worry about the rights to the characters they wrote or drew. After all, the first comic book fandom had yet to be born, and the first "comic book convention" was decades away. Aside from a few superstars, comic artists and writers were scratching by, and were immensely more concerned with putting food on the table and keeping a roof over their head than securing the rights of ownership for a pulp knockoff they jotted down when the publisher came looking for a comic book hero.

    Additionally, the Standard/Nedor heroes were like many, many other heroes of the '40s - colorful, and attention grabbing when they were on the cover of a comic, but ultimately, their stories were pretty pedestrian. No kids were clamoring for fan clubs or decoder rings from the Nedor line, as they were for Superman. Within a few years of the end of their publication, the heroes sank beneath the waves of popular culture, remembered only by a very few.

    "Come on Little Chum - We're Going Into the Public Domain!"

    With the above influences working on them, in their original form, the Nedor characters were never trademarked, and the stories in which they appeared in have long gone out of copyright (a period which lasted 28 years after publication) and were not renewed. As such, the characters legally moved into the public domain one by one, beginning with Doc Strange, in order of their publication, making it free for anyone to use them.

    The public wha...?

    For example, Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden has had multiple adaptations, spinoffs and derivative products come out - all of which are legal, from the Secret Garden Cookbook to the most recent movie adaptation, because the work is in the public domain. Anyone can create a work based on the original without having to acquire any kind of rights whatsoever - the work, legally, belongs to all mankind.

    An aside - before you go off thinking that governments actually made one law that would ultimately benefit the culture of the planet in a timeless fashion, copyright critics, pointing fingers at recent copyright extensions, such as the Sonny Bono Act (which was lobbied for largely by large media companies, and the validity of which is slated to be argued to the Supreme Court by Lawrence Lessig on October 9th) claim that the number of works entering the public domain has been drastically reduced in the past thirty years, and they're right. The move is seen by many anti-copyright pundits as a move as a culture from valuing the expression of an individual artist to valuing a corporate property.

    Ironically, Walt Disney, one of the companies that has lobbied the hardest for copyright extension (ensuring the company will reap the profits from their characters for generations to come) is also one of the biggest beneficiaries of the public domain - from Snow White to Cinderella, Jungle Book (released one year after Kipling's own copyright expired) and much of classical music in Fantasia came from the public domain. Without recent extensions approved by congress, Mickey Mouse would have gone into the public domain in 2004.

    So - how does all of this apply to the Nedor heroes? Well, as alluded to previously, they didn't just go into the public domain, and ABC/WildStorm isn't the first comic publisher to publish them - or even the only publisher to currently publish them. The Nedor heroes have bubbled up a few times in the decades since their journey into the public domain, from Ace Comics and First Comics to Eclipse and currently, AC Comics.

    The Point Is: No One's Fighting

    Before moving on, it must be stressed that none of this is a matter of publishing legality - everyone, from AC to WildStorm to anyone reading this article could legitimately and legally create and publish comics starring any of the Nedor heroes that are based on the original materials from the '40s. There's the rub - the characters have to be based directly upon the original versions which appeared in the comics. From there, things get a little more...legal.

    For example, take The Black Terror. Created in 1941 by Richard Hughes and David Gabrielsen, the character first appeared in Exciting Comics #9 in 1941. Both AC and ABC took the base character, The Black Terror, and modified it (in different ways), and renamed it The Terror (AC, after naming their version, later renamed theirs "The Terrorist"). Both were based on Nedor's The Black Terror, but were modified in unique ways by the respective publishers. Likewise, Beau Smith's version of the character, published by Eclipse (and co-written with Chuck Dixon and illustrated by Dan Brereton) used the name, but was worlds away from the original version. The character also showed up in the '80s in versions published by Ace Comics, and in Roy Thomas' Alter Ego comic series at First Comics.

    In Smith's case, the desire to use the Nedor hero as a starting point for his own take was a result of childhood memories. "When I was a kid, my dad gave me a couple of old coverless Black Terror comics that he had as a kid," Smith said. "There were in the attic at my grandma's attic. I got hooked on the cool looking character with the skull and crossbones on his chest. I always wanted to do something with the character after that.

    "He was in the public domain, and I had a high concept crime/alternate universe idea
    that I had been saving up, and this was the perfect opportunity for it. I called my buddy Chuck Dixon and we decided to write it together. We changed the basic background of the character and did our own. As a result of what we did with the original concept, Chuck and I have the rights to the story and the characters as they appeared in our three issue run....names and all that."

    Smith said he wasn't sure if Eclipse owned any of the rights to the characters, or if Todd McFarlane acquired the rights to his and Dixon's version of the Black Terror when he purchased the Eclipse assets. Smith did write a new story with the Black Terror while he was with McFarlane Productions, which was illustrated by Clayton Crain, but to date, McFarlane has opted not to publish it.

    Smith wasn't the only creator with a soft spot in his heart for the characters - as mentioned previously, the pool of Nedor characters had been dipped into by Roy Thomas and ACE Comics, but in 1988, publisher Bill Black brought back a host of public domain characters, including many of the Nedor heroes for use in AC's Femforce series, placing them in new series, as well as reprinting original stories.

    Over the years, AC Comics has taken the initiative to seek out and preserve many Golden Age comics and heroes, painstakingly retouching and correcting the art from the original comics - since no original art still exists - to produce reprint editions. As stated on their website, AC's reprints of public domain Golden Age comics is threefold:

    1. To help preserve the history of the American comic book.
    2. To make material available to collectors who have been priced out of the Golden-Age collecting market.
    3. To introduce Golden-Age material to a new generation of comic book readers.

    AC has also endeavored to compile information about the creators of the Golden Age comics - as much as it is available - and publish the information in various magazines, including Men of Mystery, which featured the Nedor heroes in a special edition.

    Again, given the time period in which the work was originally created, many creators were never credited with their work, and in some cases, attribution of the creation of Golden Age characters is only anecdotal in nature.

    Along with reprints of the original characters, AC has written the Nedor heroes as continuations of their Golden Age incarnations, maintaining the same general concepts and secret identities, but have also made some alterations in terms of costumes and names. The changes AC has made in the Nedor characters made done in order to make their versions distinctive in order that the publisher could copyright their stories, as well as protect their looks, just as Smith and Dixon did with their version of the Black Terror, and ABC has done with their versions of the characters.

    To date, AC has been publishing the Nedor heroes (both on their own and as supporting characters) for going on twenty years, a run nearly double the original run the characters enjoyed in the '40s.

    As the covers in this article show, the Terra Obscura storyline in Tom Strong #11 and #12 isn't the only connection between the Nedor line and WildStorm's ABC line - in 1942, Nedor launched America's Best Comics #1, a title which brought together Nedor's top three characters, Fighting Yank, Doc Strange, and the Black Terror together between two covers. And of course, there is that similarity between Doc Strange and Tom Strong, noted by Strong in issue #11 - the two could be brothers. It was a similarity Moore himself noted in an interview with Previews, but said that while he was inspired the America's Best Comics title as a name for a line, the similarity between the two characters was a complete coincidence.

    For Moore aficionados, his account of later discoveries after creating both Tom Strong and Promethea come as little surprise, and fit into the creators' theories about ideaspace and the fact that he occasionally runs off and prays to a snake god...or...something under his house. "I didn't know there was The Book of Promethea by Hélène Cixous, or things like that," Moore told Previews. "I didn't know John Kendrick Bangs had written a bunch of stories about a place very much like the Immateria when I made Sophie Bangs the secret identity of Promethea. All of these things are delicious coincidences. I even found a character created from about 1910 in a series of novels published by the Boy Scouts of America about this ultimate Boy Scout named Tom Strong. It's just great! If you're hitting the right kind of vein of archetypal stuff then things like this will just happen. I'm just tapping into something. It works out."

    In a recent interview with Newsarama, Moore expanded upon his decision to use the characters. "The original idea for the whole thing came when somebody, it may have been Rick Veitch, told me that there had been, back in the '40s, an America's Best Comics which I wasn't aware of," Moore said. "I thought it was a striking coincidence that we had America's Best Comics, and there was a series by the same name in the '40s. I asked [ABC editor] Scott Dunbier to check it out and see if he could find out anything about this comic, and whether there were any interesting characters.

    "For all I knew, it might have been a Western comic book, but I asked him to tell me if there were any interesting characters, with an eye to possibly reviving them if they were sort of old, forgotten characters, in the current America's Best Comics as a kind of instant 1940s continuity. I left it with Scott, and he got back to me, along with some other people who sent me covers from the original comics - it was then I realized that Doc Strange looked very much like Tom Strong - he had the same kind of bizarrely muscled physique. He wore a red t-short, and these jodhpurs, and boots. I realized that we wouldn't be able to do a character with the name Doc Strange [due to this upstart company called Marvel, which had created a character named Dr. Strange in the interim]. I though that maybe we could change the name to Tom Strange, because at that point, I though that point his first name had never been given. I found out later that it was Hugo, so I think that the current orthodoxy at ABC is that his name is Thomas Hugo Strange."

    Moore said that originally, the plan was to use the characters only for the two-part "Terra Obscura" storyline which would explain where Tom Strange came from - it was a story that needed a world populated with heroes. "I came up with the Terra Obscura idea, which I thought was an interesting variant on the notion that this is a planet which is in the same dimension as ours, and is an exact duplicate, just elsewhere in space," Moore said. "I started to research as many of the Nedor heroes as I could. Jim Steranko was a great help - he dug out loads of old articles which filled in a lot of details for me, and we did the story from there.

    "That was originally going to be all we were doing. Then, Pete Hogan, after having just done a pretty splendid job on the Tesla Strong special was looking for something else to do. He suggested that, because there was such a lot of positive feedback and interest on the web regarding the Terra Obscura characters that he wondered about doing a miniseries. It sounded good to me. Pete and I have been working together on this, and it's coming along well.

    "Initially, it was an idea if there was an interesting character in this 1940s, America's Best Comics we could kind of bring him back in the present day and pleasantly confuse readers as to whether America's Best Comics really did exist in the 1940s," Moore continued. "It was more that than anything - we'd exploit the coincidence and sort of pretended that we had this backlog of characters that stretched back to the 1940s."

    The Perils and Promise of the Public Domain

    By becoming part of the public domain, the heroes of the old Standard line of comics are part of the cultural heritage of the United States and world, just like Thomas Nash's versions of Santa Claus and Uncle Sam, and nearly all the classical music in the world. As such, they can be used by current creators as source material who would be "standing on the shoulders of giants" as it were to create their own, new works.

    According to public domain advocates, what AC and ABC (and previously, Eclipse and others) are doing with the old Nedor heroes is exactly why material should go into the public domain, that is, the original works can be freely built upon to further enhance the cultural landscape of the world. Okay, so whether or not FemForce and Tom Strong #11 and #12 enhance the cultural landscape of the world is arguable, but again, AC and ABC are doing exactly what they're supposed to in regards to works in the public domain - using them as source works, and either re-presenting them or building upon them to tell new stories.

    It's exactly what Borders or Barnes & Noble do when they publish and release their own editions of classic literature - or, for that matter, what Alan Moore did in creating League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. That said though, working with properties from the public domain, especially when using them as a foundation to build upon comes with its own problems due to the simple fact that anyone can do it. If one publishing house starts up a version of say, Pyroman (a Nedor hero) with writer A and artist B, a publishing house down the street can do their own version of Pyroman with writer C and artist D.

    In such a setting, the market would determine which version of the character survives, based on everything from quality of the product to the marketing each publishers attempt. One publish could win out over the other and make millions while the other fails, despite the time and effort expended.

    While neither Dunbier nor anyone from AC Comics chose to go on record, sources confirmed that, despite the legalities of each company's use of the characters, the smaller publisher is mildly annoyed at ABC's apparent ongoing use of the characters.

    Also, in today's world where the creator of a property has come to be considered in higher regard than in years past, there is a danger in a property such as the Nedor heroes entering the public domain and then being revised or revisited by a creator such as Alan Moore or Peter Hogan, and that is that the original creators of the work may be forgotten or overlooked. Already, the specific creator pedigree of many Nedor heroes is unknown, lost in the mists of time and churning of the 1940s' publishing industry.

    As stated above, many readers of Tom Strong #11 or #12 would automatically assign the creation of the Terra Obscura characters to Moore - after all, the guy did create heroes that were a shade away from the Charlton heroes for Watchmen, why couldn't he just do it again?

    As a result, the original creators of the characters are lost to the mists of time - technically, as they should be, as part of becoming part of the public domain, but perhaps unfairly so in the view of fans indoctrinated in the creator rights battles of the past decades.

    The public domain, in the eyes of its advocates, is a necessary part of the cultural landscape of America - something that the founding fathers outlined - something that allows a vigorous and growing culture without the restrictions of royalties. For every pro argument, there's a con, mostly from copyright holders.

    For example, if Disney and other media companies would be unsuccessful in extending the term of copyright extension, Mickey Mouse hits the public domain in 2003. Legally, Universal could produce a line of Mickey Mouse cartoons based on the original appearance of the character from the 1928 Steamboat Willie, and anyone could package and sell the original Steamboat Willie cartoon - all without credit or payment to Walt Disney.

    The challenges of public domain don't just affect the Nedor heroes - there are dozens upon dozens of Golden Age heroes who are currently in the public domain waiting for their chance at a second shot or re-presentation, or to be completely forgotten, their histories, creators, and adventures lost forever.

    • For example, if Disney and other media companies would be unsuccessful in extending the term of copyright extension, Mickey Mouse hits the public domain in 2003. Legally, Universal could produce a line of Mickey Mouse cartoons based on the original appearance of the character from the 1928 Steamboat Willie, and anyone could package and sell the original Steamboat Willie cartoon - all without credit or payment to Walt Disney.

      B.F.D. Kids today would never be interested in Mickey Mouse as he existed in Steamboat Willy. And decades from now when the most current incarnations would be available they will also seem like ancient history. Maybe we should grant Disney a permanent exception to copyright law so that they will no longer use their great wealth to trample the public's intellectual freedom.

    • Oh
      My
      God

      16 pages of the most obscure comic book minutia imaginable. Dude, I sure hope you're some sort of comic book professional.
      And I thought *I* had no life :)

      -
  • Free Mickey Mouse! (Score:3, Informative)

    by artemis67 (93453) on Wednesday September 25, 2002 @10:24AM (#4327145)
    Interestingly enough, Mickey Mouse is due to enter the public domain [saljournal.com] in 2004, unless Congress passes a copyright extension. The copyright is only good for 50 years after the owner/creator's death. A move is underway to extend that to 75 years.
    • Spider Robinson had something to say about extending copyright. I think it's still relevant.

      http://www.tale.com/titles-free.phtml?title_id=39

    • You've got it exactly backwards. Mickey Mouse's copyright has been extended to 70 years. There is a move underway to reverse that.
    • Ahem... Interestingly enough, the article you linked to has it different.

      More specifically, Micky Mouse is not due to enter the public domain until 2024, unless Eric Eldred wins in the Supreme Court (and there will likely be an other extension before then).

      The move to extend copyright for 70 years (for individuals, 95 years for corporations) was called the "The Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act". It passed in 1998.

      All according to the article you linked.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    Come on ye childhood heroes!
    Won't you rise up from the pages of your comic-books
    your super crooks
    and show us all the way.
    Well! Make your will and testament.
    Won't you? Join your local government.
    We'll have Superman for president
    let Robin save the day.
  • Apparently, a bunch of golden age heroes were never copyrighted and just faded into obscurity.

    At least today, you do not need to explicitely say that you have copyright to something, you get this automatically. Of course it helps if you type down your name and stuff to be easier to enforce.

  • by fobbman (131816) on Wednesday September 25, 2002 @10:44AM (#4327296) Homepage
    What if Batman were public domain? EVERYONE would have a Bat signal and there would be one jackass who would light theirs up just to get Batman to pick up a short case on the way over.

  • by bytesmythe (58644) <bytesmythe@ g m a il.com> on Wednesday September 25, 2002 @10:46AM (#4327311)
    You mean like:

    StallMan (real name: Richard Stallman)
    Stalwart leader of the FSF, he fires his GPL Virus Cannon at all software in sight.

    The Penguin (real name: Linus Torvalds)
    Hacker extraordinaire. Uses Linux-grip action to bring monopolies to their knees. Annoyed that StallMan keeps calling it "GNU/Linux-grip action".

    And their arch-enemies:

    Mr. Big (real name: Bill Gates)
    Leader of Micro$oft, Mr. Big uses his vast resources of time, money, and attorneys to make sure his Evil Windows Empire retains complete control. Also likes to eat kittens. Raw.

    The Luddite (real name: Jack Valenti)
    The Luddite is stringently opposed to any new technology that it enables people to have control over the music they purchase. Powers are similar to Mr. Big's. Mr. Big and The Luddite may team up to form an organization too powerful for StallMan and The Penguin to take on.

    And don't forget:
    The Citizens (real name: all of us)
    We are the supreme power. Ultimately, it is not up to StallMan and The Penguin to stop the minions of Microsoft and the ??AA from controlling us. Fight back.
  • Watchmen (Score:3, Informative)

    by kin_korn_karn (466864) on Wednesday September 25, 2002 @10:53AM (#4327366) Homepage
    didn't Alan Moore use some abandoned Golden Age characters as the basis of the heros in Watchmen?
    • Re:Watchmen (Score:3, Informative)

      by Tikiman (468059)
      Moore used characters based on a defunct comic company called Charlton, which DC has just acquired the rights to. Rather than use those characters directly, he based his characters off them (e.g. Dr Manhatten from Captain Atom). Some of those old Charlton characters are still around today, like the Blue Beetle and The Question.
    • Re:Watchmen (Score:3, Informative)

      by Blackbrain (94923)
      Alan Moore had planned to use a group of characters created by Charlton comics for the Watchmen, but once DC (who owned the characters) saw that he meant to kill them off, DC asked Moore to modify them.
      Comic Book Artists Magazine has a great interview with Moore about the Charlton characters and how they relate to Watchmen. http://twomorrows.com/comicbookartist/articles/09m oore.html [twomorrows.com]

  • obscurity (Score:2, Interesting)

    by mkanoap (209584)
    Any discussion of obscure comic characters make me think of my favorate, "Arm fall off boy". I originally read about him in a reprint digest of Legion of Superhero classics. In the introduction, the editor related how they often got suggestions for new heros from fans. He mentioned the idea of "arm fall off boy" who could detatch his arm and hit people with it.

    I was tickled by the idea of the worst super hero that never lived. Then I went looking for a link to post with this, and discovered that DC went ahead and used the character in 1996! I don't know whether to be horrified or pleased.

    http://www.ian-rowland.com/Vault/FunAFOB.htm [ian-rowland.com]
  • by John Biggabooty (591838) on Wednesday September 25, 2002 @11:17AM (#4327525)
    Did you ever notice how many heros are called "captain," and how many villains are called "doctor?" What does that say about our ideals? Why do we value brawn over brain so much? Is stupid but strong the ideal we strive for? Is there something wrong with being smart? Why not Doctor Good and Captain Evil? Is the military all good and science all evil?
    • Well, in the story cited, the heroes used were
      Pyroman, Miss Masque, The American Crusader, The Black Terror, the Fighting Yank, and Doc Strange
      No Captains, and one heroic doctor- in direct opposition to your naming rule claim.

      There are good and evil characters with each title. See a list of characters named "Doctor" here. [comicsdb.com] Ignoring multiple characters with the same name, good superheroes called "Doctor" or "Doc" of note include Strange, Fate, and Savage all of whom have had their own series; for evil "Doctor"s the only ones of similar stature are Doom and Octopus. (I'm not including the more obscure villians Destiny, Psychlo, or Alchemy; heroes of similar notability include Samson, "Doc" in the DCU, Light, and Midnight.) "Doctor" heroes actually slightly outnumber villians in my opinion.

      Notable [comicsdb.com] "Captain" villians are fewer but ones I'd heard of include "Captain"s Boomerang, Cold, and Nazi; they're similar in notability to the second group above, while there are three very well known hero "Captain"s who have had their own series (America, Marvel, Britain)... So I can agree that there's a correlation of good characters and the "Captain" name, but dispute the above absolute statement if "military all good".

  • How long... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Nomad7674 (453223) on Wednesday September 25, 2002 @11:51AM (#4327747) Homepage Journal
    The heroes are slated to get a return engagement in 2003 when Peter Hogan pens a Terra Obscura miniseries for ABC [with art by Yanique Paquette and Karl Story], utilizing the same characters on the same world. Ideally, interest will be high enough, according to Hogan, in the miniseries that ABC will launch the heroes of Terra Obscura in their own ongoing monthly
    So how long until ABC sues someone who uses these "public domain" superheroes in their own work, for violation of copyright, trademark, or something else? I don't imagine it will take some lawyer long to try and argue that once the characters have appeared in an ABC miniseries that they "belong" to ABC and that allowing other people to use the characters will cause damage to ABC's unique use of them.
    • Re:How long... (Score:3, Insightful)

      by cpt kangarooski (3773)
      They can't. I can publish anything I want about Snow White (there's a kung-fu movie coming out soon, no joke) and Disney cannot stop me despite their massive 'investment' in it, unless I what I'm doing draws directly from what THEY did, as opposed to the perfectly unobjectional original source material that they also drew from. Thus I couldn't name the dwarves Happy or Doc or whatever. I'd have to find something else, like Hillary and Jack and Bill. (assuming I bothered at all)
      • True but while Snow White is part of the common consciousness (it was a myth for centuries before it was merchandised by Disney), the same can hardly be said for Golden Age Superheroes. Someone could argue (and likely will) that any derivative work on these heroes after the miniseries is in fact "drawing directly from what THEY did" unless the author can show that they first learned of the heroes by digging them out of grandma's attic.

        Not saying that was right or that it will work. But I can't imagine ABC's lawyers not trying this trick... unless of course the miniseries is a disaster.

        • It DOESN'T MATTER. However, if you like, let us consider Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." As an American who wrote it around 1820, Irving would definately have qualified for a copyright. I strongly suspect he had one, though I don't have time to research it just now.

          Disney made a short cartoon of it in 1949. I suspect that most people are probably more familiar with the cartoon than the actual story!

          And yet, this didn't stop OTHER retellings of the story, such as the Jeff Goldblum version, or the (very good, but very divergent) Tim Burton version.

          See, you fail to understand that the burden of proof here is going to rest on ABC, as they're the plaintiffs. They have to actually PROVE that someone infringed before the other party even has to think about defending themselves. A mere allegation simply doesn't cut it. And being aware of later works is not enough -- every time Disney brings out a movie based on a fairy tale there are tons of low-budget imitators. As long as they don't draw on whatever NEW STUFF Disney has ADDED to the old story, they're a-ok.

          Unless they're actually _right_, ABC's lawyers would probably be subject to sanctions for bringing a frivolous suit. They're not going to try it unless they really do have a case. (or else they're idiots who probably deserve to be disbarred -- smart lawyers, no matter how slimy, won't risk their careers like that)
  • Well, I think we just found a few more superfriends for this project [slashdot.org]. :)
  • Update: 09/25 17:51 GMT by M: Link removed at the request of the site maintainers because it's killing their server.

    Great, now we'll be discussing the article without ever having read it!

    Oh, wait, that's what we do anyway. Nevermind.

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