Friday, February 17, 2012

Edgar Rice Burroughs estate sues Dynamite over Tarzan and John Carter comics

Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. is suing Dynamite over the company's Lord of the Jungle and Warlord of Mars comics. This is especially timely with the new John Carter movie coming up, but Tarzan's also part of the deal.

Apparently Dynamite has been operating under what Tom Spurgeon calls " the generally accepted notion in a lot of geek circles that someone can work with a trademarked property if they don't exploit the trademark." In other words, since the original stories are in the public domain (at least in the US where Dynamite's comics are published), then - again, it's "generally accepted" - you can make new stories about those characters as long as you don't put Tarzan's name in the title of the book.

That seems like a dangerous assumption to make, especially when a) companies like Dark Horse and Marvel are actually paying for the rights to adapt those stories, and b) - as Heidi MacDonald points out - Dynamite has already tried to obtain rights legally and been turned down. If you're interested, you can read the entire suit at Heidi's link.

A third danger to this assumption has to do with the way the characters are portrayed in the unlicensed comics, especially Warlord of Mars' Dejah Thoris. It was specifically mentioned in ERB, Inc's legal complaint that the Burroughs family "takes specific issue with some of the covers and interior art for Warlord of Mars: Dejah Thoris, insisting they 'border on (and in some cases are) pornographic.'" They mention the character's appearing topless on certain variant covers, which sounded weird to me at first. After all, both Dejah Thoris and John Carter run around naked through most of A Princess of Mars. But, as Sleestak pointed out to me on Twitter, Dynamite's covers have sometimes gone beyond simple nudity. That kind of takes "exploiting" these characters to another level and it's not surprising that the Burroughs estate took notice. It'll be interesting to watch this develop, especially - as Heidi in particular points out in her post - considering the larger conversation currently going on about creators' rights.


Shawn said...

I guess the question is how long should copyrights hold?
Should the grandchildren of the creator be collecting royalties?
At what point does the society that makes a work successful have the right to "play" with that work?
At what point does a piece of art transition from property to culture?
If Disney continues to have their way, that would be never, which I think will stifle creativity more than encourage it.

Michael May said...

I agree that holding on too tightly to this stuff can stifle creativity, but Burroughs' family isn't saying that no one can make comics out of his characters. They're just saying that they want their cut.

I believe that the original creator should be able to support his family from his work for as long as the work is profitable. I get how it takes a culture's acceptance of a work to make it successful, but surely the creator owns a bigger stake in it.

And it's a cut that companies like Dark Horse and Marvel are willing to give, so if Dynamite tried to get around that, it doesn't seem fair.

Especially in light of recent cases like what's going on with Gary Friedrich and Marvel. Or Jack Kirby and Marvel. Or the creators of Superman and DC. I see parallels between this case and those.

Jay Exonauts said...

Aw, that sucks! I'm DIGGING the D.E. Mars series. I've been choosy though on the covers (Jusko mainly) since most of those cheesecake covers are really obnoxious.

I seriously hope this is just a hiccup and not a permanent detour. On a side note, seems like there's been a lot of creators vs. rights-holders throw downs lately in the news.

It would be nice if some reasonable parties figured out a better system. Of course, there is an alternative. ;)

Jeffrywith1e said...

So the series is cancelled? Or are they pushing forward with it? That first issue was great!

Trey said...

"I believe that the original creator should be able to support his family from his work for as long as the work is profitable."

No doubt Disney would be heartened to here you say that. Copyrights and patents were created to expire by our legal system for a reason: to encourage innovation and creation, not to allow perpetual profit by the past. Or worse, for a creative persons uncreative heirs to continue to profit from their past achievements.

This is in no way a creator's rights issue like Kirby or even Friedrich. The big corporations that stole from those two will be squarely behind ERB, Inc. here. This is an issue of whether we going to whether the whole idea of public domain means anything.

Michael May said...

Jeffry, they haven't announced any cancellation yet.

Trey, based on Disney's relationships with the creators (and the families of the creators) of a lot of their source material, I disagree with you about their being on ERB Inc's side. From what I can tell, Disney is only ever on their own side.

But I do think there's an interesting discussion to be had about how much public domain encourages innovation and creativity. I'm not opposed to that idea, I'm just not fully convinced of it yet.

Dynamite's Tarzan adaptation is an excellent one so far, but I'd much rather see them tell stories about an all-new jungle hero instead of re-telling a story I already know. Wouldn't that be more creative?

Mike D. said...

Charlton comics also made the same error in the 60's by publishing JUNGLE TALES OF TARZAN...great series btw.
My thoughts on the subject revolve around research before publication. CHARLTON was no fly by night operation back then...and certainly DYNAMITE could have done some research before putting out these great books/comics.
I feel a deal should be struck with the ERB people to keep the comics going and pay them whatever the settlement calles for.

Michael May said...

The Dynamite adaptation is good and very faithful so far, but you hit on what's really bugging me about this case. According to ERB Inc's suit, Dynamite DID try to obtain legal rights, but were turned down.

If that's true (we just have ERB's word for it at this point), going ahead with an unlicensed version doesn't sit well with me. I'd be more sympathetic to them if the problem was just ignorance.


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