Tag: Copyright

Copyright infringement in literature, art, and film from 1923 to present. Enjoy a nefarious tale or two about intellectual property theft, on me, gratis.

Captain America in Court

Earlier this year I questioned whether Disney’s acquisition of Marvel Comics would have any effect on the long-running battle between Marvel and the heirs of Jack Kirby over the ownership rights to his creations (which are legion). To date, the answer appears to be “No.” The production of the new Captain America film continues apace, the studio remains mum on issues surrounding Marvel, and the lawsuits quietly drag on. The Kirby heirs, of course, want back the copyrights to Captain America, Thor, the Fantastic Four, and all the myriad characters created over the course of Kirby’s long association with Marvel, and have sent notices to Marvel seeking to reclaim them under the termination provisions of the Copyright Act of 1976. This (quite frankly understandable) desire to reclaim ownership of material created by kith and kin has resulted in the pending lawsuit in New York in which Marvel seeks a declaration that Kirby’s creations are work-for-hire, and a separate lawsuit by the Kirby heirs seeking recovery of the ownership rights of those creations (or, presumably, several hundred million dollars).

Although nothing of moment appears to have happened in the litigation, and the parties continue to position themselves for the arduous fight ahead, the latest news is that the Kirby heirs have dismissed their California case, and will seek resolution of their dispute with Marvel in New York.

For a detailed description of the history leading up to the Kirby vs. Marvel lawsuit, as well as in-depth briefing on similar copyright lawsuits involving other superheroes (e.g., Superman), please see Paul Slade’s superb recent article, Superheroes in Court. And for those of you who want an explanation of how copyright termination works, jump to the recent podcast on that topic by the IP Colloquium.

A Copyright Primer for Grownups

As is so often the case with internet searches — where what you get is not always what you were looking for — in the course of tracking down information about a copyright case from last year I unexpectedly stumbled upon a site that provides educational training about copyright for the layman.  Copyright for Librarians is a joint project of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society and Electronic Information for Libraries (eIFL), a consortium of libraries from 50 countries in Africa, Asia and Europe. While the stated goal of the project is to provide librarians in developing and transitional countries information concerning copyright law, the actual content is appropriate for any fairly bright non-lawyer.  The free course includes 9 learning modules, which can be downloaded from the site or viewed online.

Willy the Wizard Redux

When I woke up this morning it occurred to me that I had given short shrift to Willy the Wizard’s claims in my post yesterday, and being a type-A personality the nagging feeling that I hadn’t done my homework sat uncomfortably in the back of my mind at breakfast and on the train into work. So when I had a free moment I pulled up the just-filed federal court complaint to get first-hand intelligence on what the allegations were. A few of them are disturbing  (e.g., the claims that Christopher Little was Adrian Jacobs’ literary agent and received 1,000 copies of Willy the Wizard before becoming J.K. Rowling’s agent) but most of the complaint is taken up with nebulous allegations about how the plot and “feel” of the two books (the other book being Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) are the same. And while the litany of complaints is detailed, the allegations themselves ring a bit hollow when looked at individually.

For example, the idea of a wizardry contest at a school of wizardry does not exactly break new ground in the realm of fantasy — one has only to turn to LeGuin’s classic A Wizard of Earthsea (1968) to follow the adventures of Ged at the school for wizards on the Isle of Roke. And one can easily step out of our world and into the Land by merely cracking open Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane (1977), where Thomas Covenant awakes to find himself in a magical world-within-our-world and wields wild magic that makes the Council of Lords at Revelstone uneasy. (Revelstone, of course,  is a wizard’s college, among other things). And our inquiry needn’t end there, since there are innumerable books where the notion of formal training for magicians is a key element (see, e.g., Magician (1982)), and scores more where the idea of a wizard’s apprenticeship is mentioned in passing.

Willy’s claim that the concept of a young boy learning about magic and the secrets of the universe can be protected is patently ridiculous. You can’t copyright ideas, and the young-hero-coming-of-age story, with or without the magical extras thrown in, is no more copyrightable than the tired theme of the penny romance, where the poor heroine is swept off her feet by the dark, mysterious stranger who turns out to be a wealthy prince in disguise.  The coming-of-age plus magic combination is so old it hardly bears mention, ranging from Mallory’s retelling of the tale of the rise and fall of King Arthur in Le Morte d’Artur –first published in 1485 —  to so many iterations on the same or similar theme that they are beyond counting. Without even trying I can think of a handful of books with a similar theme — T.H. White’s The Sword and the Stone (1938); Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising sequence (1965); Lloyd Alexander’s seminal work The Chronicles of Prydain (1964); and C.S. Lewis’ famous The Chronicles of Narnia (1950). In all of them the subject of children finding their way through a magical realm, or finding magic in what they thought was a quite ordinary realm, is central to the (uncopyrightable) theme.

In the final analysis, without parsing any more works of fantasy or dredging up further examples from my misspent youth, my view is that Willy the Wizard’s complaint is weak. If it ends up before a judge who happens to know his fantasy fiction and has a good grasp of mythology, I think poor Willy might be headed for the dungeon.

Willy the Wizard vs. Harry Potter

Nothing breeds lawsuits like success. Apart from The Bible and the complete works of William Shakespeare, nothing has captured the hearts and minds of a generation of readers like the Harry Potter saga. In our modern age, of course, the price of fame is being subject to calumny and accusations of plagiarism, copyright infringement, and [...]

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