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Pulp Culture, Part 1: Copyright or Copy Wrong
By Philip Schweier
Jul 8, 2006 - 23:55




A couple of years ago, while doing research for a story on pulp magazines, I checked on a fan site, Doc Savage Unchained, for more information. I was surprised to find it gone, because for as long as I’ve been online, it had been in existence. Shortly thereafter, I received in my email a review of a Shadow story from another website, which had all the Shadow stories posted, available for download. The email also informed me that the stories had been removed from the site at the request of Condé Nast, the current copyright holders of both The Shadow and Doc Savage.

Such usage may fall in the category of what’s called “fair usage.” This is an exemption to United States copyright law that allows for commentary, parody, news reporting, research and education. It should not be misconstrued as a license to steal. It is important to consider what your intent is, and whether it could potentially affect the marketability of the product.

At the time, Advance Magazines, Condé Nast’s parent company, had future plans for The Shadow. Consequently, in an effort to protect its properties, Condé Nast was contacting many fan sites. Its position was that such Internet material infringes on its copyrights, and required that it be removed from the internet or face legal action. Many sites were permanently closed down.

Another example would be the case of the Vintage Comics Reading Room, where a number of Golden and Silver Age stories from DC Comics were posted. Site operator Barry Dreyfus invited visitors to regard it as going to the public library and checking out a comic book. However, he also states, “Many of the comic books are now considered collectors items which may be highly valued.”

According to his site, DC asked the stories be removed, as it could diminish the value of those stories. Granted, they may have originally been published decades ago, when copyright restrictions were not so far-reaching. However, DC Comics has been republishing much of its older material in archive editions. Why would a person buy such editions when the stories are available free on the Internet?

DC’s position, stated in a letter Dreyfus has posted on the site, is that by posting the stories without permission was “unfair competition and a misappropriation of our valuable property rights.” The letter, from Jay Kogan of DC’s legal department, goes on to cite its “exclusive right to determine how they may be reproduced and distributed to the public...If and when we wish to make our older books available online is up to us.”

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Anyone will tell you that word of mouth is the cheapest form of advertising, and the Internet is the most effective form of word of mouth there is. In the case of The Shadow and Doc Savage, they could profit greatly from an Internet presence. Their books are out of print, and their magazines have been defunct for more than 55 years. Each was featured in a major motion picture, neither of which proved successful. Aside from occasional comic book versions, they are little more than the most well known of largely forgotten pulp heroes.

Much of the material from fan sites is used as reference in articles and essays of varying types. They also introduce new generations to pulp literature, and for most part are intended to be educational. Such pages contain historical information on the characters and their appearances in print and film, as well as comic and pulp images from the 1930s to present day.

So wouldn’t a fan site, built free of charge by someone who enjoys the character, be an advantage to the copyright holder? On the surface, yes. It increases the property’s Internet presence and popularity. However, a company that owns such properties needs to be in control of how its properties are used. It’s difficult to exercise such control when the person who has established the website may be well-meaning but uninformed teenager operating out of his parents’ basement in Dubuque, Iowa.

My initial reaction to the shut down of the websites was one of dismay, believing it to be a matter of the little guy being pushed around by overzealous corporate lawyers. In this era of electronic mass media gone wild, I won’t begrudge anyone a bit of protection for their properties. Much of the pulp material produced in the 1930s and ‘40s was created by people who are now dead, published by companies now defunct. Few had the foresight to protect their properties this far into the future, and I doubt any anticipated the development of such an omnipresent publishing format as the world wide web.

There are all types of fan sites, devoted to everything from Sherlock Holmes to the Beatles to Hopalong Cassidy. Such websites are created by fans for fans, spreading the gospel, as it were. Rarely, if ever, do the legitimate copyright holders exercise their legal rights in this manner, recognizing that such fan sites are mostly benign.

A prudent move by the operator of a website might be to seek permission from the company in question. Some copyright holders have established guidelines for the use of their properties for fan sites, and are often pretty open to such use as long as the sites adhere to their requirements.

However, sometimes there is just cause for action on the part of the lawyers. One website that was shut down sold poster-size images of Shadow magazine covers. Note the use of the word “sold,” – as in, “for profit.” For a person to make money off the material owned by Condé Nast without its approval is obviously unethical. Charging a fee for the posters makes the violation open to money damages. Potentially, Condé Nast would be awarded all monies from such sales.

Some copyright infringements seem to simply be misunderstandings in the current status of the trademarked material. According to Brad Templeton’s “10 Big Myths about copyright explained” (www.templetons.com/brad/copymyths), virtually EVERYTHING is copyright protected in some way, regardless of who created it, when it was created, or in what manner it is to be used. About the only exception to this is material that explicitly says otherwise.

Another myth Templeton dispels concerns whether money is charged. The fact that stories of The Shadow were available free of charge does not exempt that site from violation. These novels are owned and copyrighted by Condé Nast. Distributing them free via the Internet can diminish the commercial value of the work, even though few have seen print in the past 30 years.

But that is about to change. Shadow expert Anthony Tollin has acquired the publishing rights from Conde Nast and will be issuing reprints beginning in mid-July, 2006. Retailing for $12.95, these will duplicate the publishing format of the pulps, complete with original art. Sources for the reprints will include Nostalgia Ventures, Adventure House, Vintage Library, and Bud Plant, as well as a subscription service for fans who wish their copy mailed to them. Doc Savage is scheduled to follow at a later date. However, neither title will be republished in its original order. Priority is being given to stories that have had lower distribution during their reprints of the 1960s and ‘70s.

Next Week: Pulp Culture, part 2

Praise and adulation? Scorn and ridicule? Email me at pschweier@hotmail.com


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Pulp Culture, Part 1: Copyright or Copy Wrong