Buck Rogers and the Copyright Trolls
Remember the Sherlock Holmes case where the Conan Doyle Estate was shaking everyone down for sub-litigation payoffs and asserting claims over Holmes (despite serious copyright scholars all saying they had no right to do so) until Les Klinger stuck to his guns?
Now it’s happening again, with some minor variations, only this time the weapon of choice is Buck Rogers.
The character of Anthony “Buck" Rogers first appears in Philip Nowlan’s 1928 novel ARMAGEDDON 2419 A.D. (itself a combination of two novellas that appeared in the AMAZING STORIES magazine) and serves as an origin story for the character. Rogers, after a mine cave-in, falls into a state of suspended animation and wakes up in the 25th century amidst a futuristic war.
Rogers is never referred to as “Buck" in the novel, the nickname coming in 1929 when Chicago newspaperman John F. Dille hired Nowlan to create a comic strip called “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century A.D."
The ARMAGEDDON novel is out of copyright, as under US copyright law, it was entitled to protection until 1956, at which point the copyright needed to be renewed by either the author or owner. It never was, and entered in to the public domain in the U.S. at that time. It currently can be read for free on Project Gutenberg.
Under most non-U.S. copyright laws based on the Berne Convention, a work is covered for a period of “life plus 50." Nowlan died in 1940.
There is little doubt that the character of Buck Rogers originated from the original ARMAGEDDON novel, yet that hasn’t stopped the Dille Family Trust, an entity representing the estate of the John Dille, from asserting copyright claims over him.
The Trust is represented by Louise Geer, who, along with her husband Dan Herman owns a small law practice in New Castle, Pennsylvania (Herman also runs a boutique comic book company called HERMES PRESS). They managed to continue licensing the Buck Rogers character by controlling trademarks and because many of the familiar elements of the character were introduced in the comic strip.
Enter Don Murphy, producer of NATURAL BORN KILLERS, REAL STEEL and all of the TRANSFORMERS films (also the guy who’s optioned LITTLE BROTHER for Paramount, incidentally). He is the Les Klinger of Buck Rogers.
Murphy, with his company Angryfilms, was trying to make a Buck Rogers movie, but was unable to make a deal with the Trust. He then decided to focus his attention on the public domain ARMAGEDDON novel, feeling that the Buck Rogers “brand" didn’t mean that much to today’s filmgoers and wasn’t necessary for the story. He even retained Flint Dille, a gamer, screenwriter and most interestingly, the grandson of John Dille, to co-write the screenplay.
Soon after the announcement of the ARMAGEDDON 2419 film, Geer and Herman began to barrage Murphy with threatening letters, claiming they owned the Nowlan novel, either to shut the movie down and/or extract a rights payment. They even threatened Dille, who is one of the beneficiaries of the trust itself!
Murphy responded by filing suit in court, asking for a judgment that the Nowlan novel is in the public domain. Furthermore, he asked (as Klinger did with Holmes) for a declaration stating that since the character of Buck Rogers has his origins in the public domain novel, the character itself is therefore in the public domain and all trademarks for it should be voided.
Geer and Herman, like all good copyright trolls, have attempted to get the suit tossed out of California on venue issues and moved to New Castle. They are being represented by David Aronoff, who regularly takes on these types of cases and boasts on his website about his attempt to assert a claim for a Zorro copyright, despite that work having entered the public domain.
The copyright troll business-model is to make claims to stuff you don't own and then demand sums that, while appreciable, are below the threshold at which litigation is economically rational, so creators just pay you rent on something you don't own, filling your war-chest with money you can use to attack other creators.
Hermes Press, the comics publisher run by Buck Rogers' jailers, also
buys up a lot of young creators' work for small money on terms that are
very favorable to the business. Anyone contemplating selling their work
to a press associated with the kind of outrageous legal shenanigans
Hermes's owners get up to should tread very carefully indeed. After all,
if this is their idea of a fair deal, how will things go when
you have a dispute with them?
Our beloved characters and stories are being used as magic money-spinners by copyright trolls, who act as toll-collectors and gate-keepers to the public domain, ripping off creators who want to tell stories and audiences who’d enjoy them.
For now, we have two ways of felling trolls: the Happy Birthday way, which is to make a movie about a legal battle with the copyright troll, and use the film’s budget to fund the litigation (sadly, this was a one-off); and stubborn people who won’t be pushed around going to court and refusing to back down.
Luckily for Buck Rogers, there’s a stubborn person who’s willing to fight on all our behalf to smite Buck’s copyright jailers.
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