Conan and copyright, by Crom!

As a followup to the recent dustup in which a group of copyright trolls who claim to control the rights to all of the Conan stories (even the out-of-copyright ones!) shut down Broken Sea Audio's distribution of free audiobooks based on the public domain stories, here's a great, exhaustively researched article on the copyright status of the Conan stories, written by a fan:
Many of the works of REH were first published during or shortly after his lifetime, from 1922 through 1939. More came out over the decades that followed, with a large amount seeing first publication after 1964. Under US law, all of the REH works first published prior to 1964 were subject to the registration, renewal and notice requirements of the 1909 Copyright Act (“the 1909 Act”). Under the 1909 Act, copyright was not automatically applied to a published work, as it is under the current Act. Instead, to obtain copyright, the work had to be first published subject to a number of rules. These included proper notice affixed to the work, and prompt registration. If works were published without meeting these formalities, such works were usually injected into the Public Domain (“the PD”). Further, 28 years after publication there was a one year window in which certain classes of people or entities could file for a renewal of the copyright for an additional 28 year term (later extended by Congress to a total term of currently 95 years). In practice, the courts have said that as long as the original registration is filed prior or simultaneously with the renewal, the registration was still valid. Further, the courts have on occasion been forgiving of flawed but still present notice under the 1909 Act. But, the courts have been quite strict about the one year window for renewals. Complete lack of notice also generally automatically injected the work into the Public Domain, though the totality of the circumstances can affect that issue.
THE COPYRIGHT AND OWNERSHIP STATUS OF THE WORKS AND WORDS OF ROBERT E. HOWARD (Thanks, Jeremy!)

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  1. This is a great example why current US copyright law and Copyright trolls are evil: It’s impossible to see if anything is public domain or not, even for a very famous dead author. What about all those not very famous dead authors and their books disappearing fast from our lives. It’s as if someone is burning the Library again, but this time, slowly, one book at a time.

  2. To be fair. They are not trolls(*). They bought the Conan trademark in 2002 and since then they worked very hard to revive Conan (he was practically dead, no new products and a death lock on republishing old material). To get better control they bought all the remaining copyrights and trademarks for all stories and characters in 2006. My guess is that they enforced their copyrights/trademarks to protect their characters. I think it’s stupid, but that don’t make them trolls.

    There where a stale match between those who wanted to produce new Conan products or reprint old stories and those who owned the copyrights and trademarks before 2006 (it was split up between several small parties before 2004 (not sure about the year))

    As I seem to play the devils advocate, I could claim that Broken Sea Audio parasitise on Paradox Entertainments hard work. (Funny thing is, that if not the article and comments had been so biased against Paradox Entertainment, I would probably been on the other side of the fence.)

    If you don’t like the situation, feel free to buy the company. They are registered on First North Premier Stock Exchange (small stock market in Sweden controlled by OMX NASDAQ) and none of the main owners control enough bonds to prevent an hostile takeover.

    (*) A copyright troll is someone who just sits on the copyright and collects licence fees. It may be what these guys strive for, but up until now they have had to work very hard to realise Conan merchandise and in the process they’ve made old novels available agin.

  3. What is best in life?

    To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.

  4. Under the 1909 Act, copyright was established upon investive publication with notice. Registration (and deposit) was not required to establish a copyright, but had procedural effects. Also, the renewal window opened on the 27th year, and if not renewed, entered the public domain 28 years after publication.
    Hakan, your gripe is about past (1909 Act) copyright law, not current (1976 Act). Its not impossible to tell at all. Here are the general rules. If published prior to 1923, public domain. If published between 1923 and 1963, you have to see with the copyright office whether the work was renewed.


  5. What is best in life?

    To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.”

    According to Cohen the Barbarian, nothing beats soft tissue paper.

  6. Anonymous @5: Got it. You’re affiliated with the guys who got control of the estate from the previous set of gonifs.

  7. Ease up, if this author isnt rewarded for his efforts, hes not going to wite any more books.

  8. Completely unrelated, but Conan’s Pizza in Austin is fantastic. The reason I’m reminded of this is because the owner Scott (I forget his last name) started the chain and used his motorcycle-gang name for the restaurant. Needless to say, Marvel got pissed and sued… well, let’s just say the pizza still tastes great and it’s an Austin institution, with plenty of Frazetta art on the walls.

  9. #11 No I’m not. But it’s been many reports about the company in Swedish financial papers since 2002. At first I was pessimistic, two books with Conan the Barbarian, the books of Tolkien and The Chronicles of Narnia where the only fantasy novels in the public library when I was a kid, so I have kind of an emotional attachment (Narnia was a huge disappointment, if I had read them first I might never have been into fantasy). But the original owners of Paradox Entertainment have taken great financial risks, worked hard and made both a movie and a game deal (I don’t think I will see/play either). Not to mention that they’ve got old novels in print again (I’m kind of curious about how the rest of the novels are) and collected all different trademarks and copyrights that are involved in the same place, so that Conan might actually survive.

    They might be greedy capitalists, but they aren’t the usual copyright trolls and they aren’t all bad for Conan.

    I don’t owe any bonds (I’m not a player, so I don’t buy stock in puny companies on the verge of bancrupcy), I don’t know anybody within the company (but I do know a couple of small investers), but Swedish papers have written alot of articles about them and I’ve read them because I liked the books when I was a kid.

  10. Tweeker, are you running on autopilot? The author in question has been dead since 1936.

  11. Anonymous @14:

    But the original owners of Paradox Entertainment have taken great financial risks, worked hard and made both a movie and a game deal (I don’t think I will see/play either). Not to mention that they’ve got old novels in print again (I’m kind of curious about how the rest of the novels are) and collected all different trademarks and copyrights that are involved in the same place, so that Conan might actually survive.

    You say you aren’t planning to see their movie or play the game, but you’re following Paradox Entertainment like a devoted fan. You speak familiarly of the financial risks they’ve taken and the amount of work they’ve done. Casual fans of an author’s work normally could not care less about stuff like that. Your sustained interest in the subject implies a level of engagement and degree of focus I’ve only seen in some (not all) serious longtime fans of outfits like Pixar, Disney, Studio Ghibli, DC Comics, and comparable entities that have a long history of producing successful entertainment.

    This makes your story very odd. Paradox Entertainment doesn’t have its own fandom. Fans don’t follow production companies; they follow movies and books and writers and artists. If a company puts out enough work that fans like, and if it’s a sufficiently distinctive product that the fans perceive a connection between the company and the works they like, they may then start to pay attention to the company. Paying attention to the company’s financial status is a long way down the road from there.

    Paradox Entertainment doesn’t have anything like that kind of history. They own the rights to the Howard estate, plus a number of games. An unfinished version of their first movie, Mutant Chronicles, was released in Europe last year, but I haven’t heard much buzz about it. The finished version won’t premiere for another four weeks, and will hit the theatres a month after that, at the end of April.

    At the moment, Conan is just a movie deal. Lots of movie deals get made. Some of them actually result in movies being released at some point in the future, and some of those movies bear some resemblance to the original work. Until then, it’s nothing fans can pin their hearts to.

    Finally, you say there are lots of Conan and other Robert E. Howard stories and novels you haven’t read yet, but you’re familiar with the in-print status of Howard’s work, and the status of the estate’s trademarks and copyrights.

    As for me? I’ve lived and worked in the sf and fantasy community for over thirty years. For a good part of that time I’ve been a professional sf&f editor. If you want to keep insisting that you don’t have any connection with Paradox or Conan, go right ahead. But if this conversation were a Warner cartoon, I’d be advising you to not look down.

  12. Isn’t there some kind of law that expressly forbids using trademark to shutdown distribution of works that are in the public domain? (I haven’t read TFA yet so maybe it’s mentioned in there.)

    I wonder how this relates to the forced closure of the Gizmology Lovecraft archive a few years back by people who claimed to own the copyrights on those stories (which are arguably in the public domain.)

  13. Completely unrelated, but Conan’s Pizza in Austin is fantastic. The reason I’m reminded of this is because the owner Scott (I forget his last name) started the chain and used his motorcycle-gang name for the restaurant. Needless to say, Marvel got pissed and sued… well, let’s just say the pizza still tastes great and it’s an Austin institution, with plenty of Frazetta art on the walls.

    That’s funny. I’ve eaten there, too. I took a folklore class at UT across the street. Our folklore teacher got hired as a consultant for the restaurant during the case. Conan goes way back to the olden days and was a figure in Irish folklore.

    So Marvel lost their lawsuit and the store name stayed the same. That is until it turned into a Kerby Lane.

    But it looks like they’re still kicking around Austin.

    Conan Names

  14. This an a prime example of why I hate corporations being able to hold copyrights. If you didn’t create the work, or didn’t commission it, you shouldn’t have control over how it’s used, especially when its something that should have been public domain decades ago.

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