DC Comics Punches Back at Bill Willingham’s “Fables’ Copyright Move


Following Bill Willingham’s announcement on Thursday that he was releasing Fables into the public domain as a result of mistreatment by DC Comics, the comic book publisher sent out the following unambiguous statement the next day, without ever addressing the underlying issues that prompted Willingham to make the proclamation in the first place:


The Fables comic books and graphic novels published by DC, and the storylines, characters and elements therein, are owned by DC and protected under the copyright laws of the United States and throughout the world in accordance with applicable law, and are not in the public domain. DC reserves all rights and will take such action as DC deems necessary or appropriate to protect its intellectual property rights. 


That looks like it’s targeted at anyone who was considering creating their own Fables fiction or comics, which more than a few people were already considering, based on a cursory glance on Twitter. However, according to the most recent copyright filings, DC appears to have agreed to assign copyright to Willingham.




And in recent indicia’s, it looks as though the copyrights were shared, and the trademarks belong to Bill Willingham.



It appears that the publisher is claiming ownership of the characters in a creator-owned comicbook after printing them repeatedly for over two decades with copyright indicia that clearly states the creator owns all trademarks in the characters. Obviously, the stories already written and published by DC would not be public domain, but the characters and situations of Willingham’s characters could be. While DC is correct in claiming that they retain the rights to the stories they have already published, it is unclear how they can claim to have the rights to original stories based on the same characters that others would now be creating with IP moving into the public domain.


Willingham noted that because it has been so many years since he first struck his creator-owned deal with DC, there is little to no one left at the company who actually dealt with him at the time, and thus no one at the company seems to know (or is willing to honor) the terms of his agreement. One example he gave was a deal DC made with Telltale Games to create a Fables video game, in which Willingham claims he was not paid royalties.


There are many competing theories about if a work could be dedicated to the public domain, and how it would be done, but one of the issues is that any such dedication could be viewed as a “unenforceable promise” that could potentially be revoked at any time. Willingham, on the other hand, certainly believes that he can do this legally, so it is now a matter of waiting to see what happens when the first person attempts to publish a new Fables works. 



I’m not a copyright attorney, so I am not an expert in this field, but it seems straightforward. Let me know in the comments what you think. What’s most disappointing is that DC Comics is quick to respond to a threat to what they think  is their copyright, but not to the creator who had problems with the way DC Comics was handling what he feels is his property. Priorities, I guess. The bottom line here is that Willingham’s move is stunning and will likely send shockwaves through the world of intellectual property rights for years to come.





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Chris Braly

I'm one opinionated, based geek. I try to steer this tiny ship and can often be heard monthly on the Comic Book Page Previews Spotlight podcast with several fellow "comic book nerds." Follow me on Twitter @ChrisBraly. My preferred adjectives are brilliant/beautiful.