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PUBLIC DOMAIN SUPER HEROES

July 28, 2011

GREETINGS FOLKS!

During one of the recent gaming sessions of the pulp supers role playing game Capes and Calamity I had mentioned this website:  Public Domain Super Heroes.

Public Domain Super Heroes is a collaborative website about comic book, film, literary, or pulp characters in the public domain that have appeared in comics or fit in a common comic book genre such as the masked vigilante, caped crusader, or jungle lord.

In the early days of comics, publishing companies came and went with great frequency. Most of the defunct companies never bothered to renew their Copyrights. Many were bought out by other companies that also failed to do so. For instance, DC bought out Quality, but evidently made the same mistake as many other companies: confusing the actual possession of the original property with legal ownership of the characters and stories depicted therein. Hence, while they owned all the remaining prints and plates of hundreds of comics, they failed to renew the Copyright on most of the original printed material.

The Copyright laws in the United States have changed several times over the past century. The changes made in 1960s, 1970s and 1990s significantly extended copyright terms for the works which were still in copyright at that point. While they will probably lapse into public domain in some point, it won’t happen for quite a while. For our purposes, much of what was created in the 60s and beyond will be unusable for quite some time.

The Public Domain consists of works and ideas that nobody may claim as their own. The wheel can’t be Trademarked, the King James Bible can’t be Copyrighted, and the Waterbed cannot be patented. Improvements and variations CAN be protected; Firestone and Michelin are Trademarked wheels, Bibles with the words of Jesus printed in red or having maps of the Holy Land added can be Copyrighted, and a specific design of Waterbed can be patented. In terms of print media, the Public Domain consists of works that existed before Copyright law (Don Quixote or the Illiad), those that are too old to be protected any more (Frankenstein and Dracula), and those whose Copyrights have run out and weren’t renewed (like the characters here). Finally, real-life historical figures are, by definition, in public domain.

Public Domain is a legal issue, so by its very nature, it can be confusing. The standard for trademark infringement is called “confusingly similar.” The standard for copyright infringement is called “substantially similar.”

Cartoon characters can be protected under both copyright and trademark law. Copyright of literary characters was originally based on the written works, but cartoon characters, and by extension, comic book characters have a visual representation.

To complicate matters further, some “public domain” works may actually be “orphan works”. “Orphan works” as the term is understood in the trade means works that may still be protected by copyright, but which have been abandoned by their copyright owners, or for which no copyright owner remains in existence.

~Horror Master Noire AKA Alan

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2 comments

  1. Great article! Well written, information, etc. I always wondered if it was legal to create works derived from comic heroes of earlier eras, even to sell material based on such characters. It looks like it is.

    Of course, you can use anything you want for your own home games. The WOTC police won’t get you. But good info, overall.


  2. [...] link: PUBLIC DOMAIN SUPER HEROES « Pulp Nocturne 1930 Share and [...]



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