Conde Nast sues over Doc Savage works (not) in public domain (see update)

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Dan says: "The novels featuring the '30s pulp characters Doc Savage and The Shadow have been freely available on Blackmask.com for many years, with the owner of that site saying that the copyrights were never renewed (back before auto-renewal of copyright). Conde Nast, the owner of the trademarks on Doc Savage, is suing the owner of the site, and the owner isn't backing down."
Link

Reader comment: Jonn says:

I just saw the BoingBoing article about Blackmask getting sued
over their Doc Savage and Shadow books, which BoingBoing characterizes
as "works in the public domain".

It's not clear to me, though, after reading the BoingBoing article
and David's summary, what the basis is for this claim. In particular,
it looks like there *were* renewals filed for the copyrights of the
early books, and if they're valid (and it's not clear to me why
they wouldn't be) the copyrights would still be in force today.

You do have to look for the renewals in the right place. In
particular, they're *not* in the Copyright Office's "books"
renewals, but the "periodicals" renewals. (It turns out that pulp
fiction publications were often registered as periodicals.) And they're
*not* in some widely disseminated copyright renewal compilations,
such as those from Project Gutenberg, that included
"books" renewals but not "periodicals" renewals (which weren't
digitized until relatively recently.)

On this page, for instance, you can find renewal records for the first 5
issues of _Doc Savage Magazine_, which (cross-checking against
Wikipedia) appears to cover "The Man of Bronze" through
"Pirate of the Pacific"

Similarly. _The Shadow_ appears to have been renewed as a periodical
right from issue 1, and the predecessor serial that featured the
Shadow, _Detective Story Magazine_ was renewed at least as far back
as 1923. You can look up these and other renewals from and you might find of particular interest the inventory of
publications renewed as periodicals between 1923 and 1950
.

This inventory has been online since earlier this year; it and its
contents were fresh in my mind because I'm giving a talk on it in a few
days to the Digital Library Federation, and was just finishing a draft
of the slides when I saw the article.

David's piece mentions a few other reasons he has for going to
court instead of settling. I'm not clear on the background of
these reasons-- there may well be other information I don't have,
such as whether Street and Smith were entitled to renew the copyrights
on their own. But I'd hate to see folks put through painful and
potentially ruinous litigation if it's because of a mistake.

John (as always, I am not a lawyer and should not be relied on for
legal advice) Mark Ockerbloom

Reader comment: Robotech Master says:

It's a common misconception that those books are in the Public Domain.
However, it has previously come out, even before this, that they are
*not*
. You might want to post a correction on the story...

"The reason you won't find [The Shadow novels] listed [in the Library
of Congress web site at www.loc.gov], is that the Library of Congress
hasn't updated those files. You have to go to the Madison Building,
4th Floor and into the Copyright Card Files to find the renewal. I can
tell you...you will find the renewals and the original copyrights. The
Shadow is under copyrights and all those text files are illegally
posted and reprinted. This is a problem, when someone assumes. If
these are all public domain, why hasn't some decent publisher rushed
to reprint these stories? I can tell you why...Advance Magazines, Inc,
which is a subsidary of Conde Nast Publications hasn't granted
permission. That's why!"

Furthermore, if you read the Blackmask article to which you linked,
even the Blackmask guy admits they're not in the public domain; he
refers to the lawyer having sent him copies of all 506 renewal notices
(presumably the ones that are not in the online database but have to
be found in the Copyright Card Files) and mentions that he's filing to
get the copyrights *transferred* to him under Adverse Possession. If
they were in the public domain, there would be no copyrights to be
transferred.

It was only a matter of time before they got around to suing BlackMask
over this.

Jim Kosmiki says:

I would actually have expected this more from Cory, since their control of this copyright while not allowing access to the material is exactly what EFF has been arguing forever. The copyright argument was never very convincing to me, as Bantam’s paperbacks listed the copyright renewal on their title pages, IIRC. Bantam wouldn’t have paid the fees they paid if the material was PD. As popular as the Doc reprints were in the late 60’s/early 70’s, somebody else would have been reprinting them too.

However, having said that, the fact that they AREN’T being made available is a shame. Blackmask has set up a proven distribution system for this material, but Conde Nast can’t be bothered to even discuss the appropriate licensing. Adventure House puts out High Adventure magazine and C2C reprints of various pulps, and they clearly indicate that Argosy still has the copyright to most of what they reprint. However, Argosy is clearly interested interested in making some money (not necessarily Hollywood level money) and having the properties actually OUT THERE for people to read.

I’m interested in this notion of adverse possession mentioned at the end of the post and how that works – any links to that concept?