Fables Enters the Public Domain
September 14, 2023 4:01 PM   Subscribe

As of now, 15 September 2023, the comic book property called Fables, including all related Fables spin-offs and characters, is now in the public domain. What was once wholly owned by Bill Willingham is now owned by everyone, for all time. It’s done, and as most experts will tell you, once done it cannot be undone. Take-backs are neither contemplated nor possible.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker (51 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
His take on Intellectual Property Monopoly is also interesting.
In my template for radical reform of those laws I would like it if any IP is owned by its original creator for up to twenty years from the point of first publication, and then goes into the public domain for any and all to use. However, at any time before that twenty year span bleeds out, you the IP owner can sell it to another person or corporate entity, who can have exclusive use of it for up to a maximum of ten years. That’s it. Then it cannot be resold. It goes into the public domain. So then, at the most, any intellectual property can be kept for exclusive use for up to about thirty years, and no longer, without exception.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 4:13 PM on September 14 [13 favorites]

This is interesting timing because I just read an article yesterday about what was going on with the delays to the last couple of issues of Fables where Willingham was saying that he had put the scripts in a long time ago and he was blaming DC for the holdup (I figured the delays were caused by Mark Buckingham being too busy with Miracleman but I guess not) and also was saying that DC had made unilateral edits to a Smallville comic he had written as well. I guess that was his way of preparing the ground for today's announcement.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 4:15 PM on September 14 [2 favorites]

I was today years old when I learned there was a comic book series called Fables. I don't even know if I would have spent anytime looking into it (although that wikipedia link does make it seem appealing). After reading Bill's outstanding and thoughtful press release about how and why he came to make the decisions he did, I will absolutely be looking into it further.

Thanks for posting this.
posted by BigHeartedGuy at 4:16 PM on September 14 [5 favorites]

I read a lot of comics/graphic novels, and Fables was very well worth the time. I'll probably do a re-read now! Very cool.
posted by Jacen at 4:20 PM on September 14 [4 favorites]

Interesting move. I wonder if it will hold up legally! Fables was great when I was reading it back in the first few volumes. I thought it kind of lost its way after a bit - anyone have any opinions on arcs or characters worth getting back into it for?
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 4:27 PM on September 14 [2 favorites]

posted by KChasm at 4:31 PM on September 14 [22 favorites]

On the one hand, this is probably more bomb throwing because he’s mad at DC than a good faith effort to put something into the public domain and I’d want a good look at his contract before doing any work based on whatever unspecified portion of Fables is supposed to be public domain now.

On the other hand I’ve already seen someone do Bigby Wolf saying “Free Palestine!” so maybe it is good for something.
posted by Artw at 4:32 PM on September 14 [16 favorites]

CBR notes that:

As to whether Willingham can legally put characters into the public domain in a way other than disuse (and obviously, since the comics are basically perpetually in print, disuse would likely never occur), it is unclear.

The article then links to an article about Tom Lehrer's efforts to put his oeuvre into the public domain. These efforts include publishing his lyics online with a note that they should be treated as if they were in the public domain and creating a trust that seems to be designed to inherit the rights with a mission to continue to treat them as if in the public domain.
posted by ursus_comiter at 4:33 PM on September 14 [8 favorites]

Was rather hoping this was accompanied with a download link. But alas.
posted by hippybear at 4:40 PM on September 14 [2 favorites]

The series concept was interesting, the artwork often beautiful, the treatment of female characters has a whooole lotta yikes in it.

Also just massive content warnings for sexual assault, violence, etc. if you're going to read it.

I think Bigby Wolf also gave a Zionist speech at one point, that took me off guard.
posted by emjaybee at 4:42 PM on September 14 [13 favorites]

Wow. Willingham has been in the business since the '70s. With Fables, DC was late reporting royalties, under-reported royalties, required close monitoring for 20 years to protect creative content, tried to snake Willingham's copyright during anniversary-issues negotiations by offering a new work-for-hire scheme... and 10 years ago, when DC licensed Willingham's I/P (to Telltale Games), it did not pay him licensing fees, and ultimately tried to re-categorize him as consultant bound by an NDA in a new agreement:

"[T]hey tried to strong arm the ownership of Fables from me. When Mark Doyle and Dan Didio first approached me with the idea of bringing Fables back for its 20th anniversary (both gentlemen since fired from DC), during the contract negotiations for the new issues, their legal negotiators tried to make it a condition of the deal that the work be done as work for hire, effectively throwing the property irrevocably into the hands of DC. When that didn’t work their excuse was, “Sorry, we didn’t read your contract going into these negotiations. We thought we owned it.

"More recently, during talks to try to work out our many differences, DC officers admitted that their interpretation of our publishing agreement, and the following media rights agreement, is that they could do whatever they wanted with the property. They could change stories or characters in any way they wanted. They had no obligation whatsoever to protect the integrity and value of the IP, either from themselves, or from third parties (Telltale Games, for instance) who want to radically alter the characters, settings, history and premises of the story (I’ve seen the script they tried to hide from me for a couple of years). Nor did they owe me any money for licensing the Fables rights to third parties, since such a license wasn’t anticipated in our original publishing agreement.

"When they capitulated on some of the points in a later conference call, promising on the phone to pay me back monies owed for licensing Fables to Telltale Games, for example, in the execution of the new agreement, they reneged on their word and offered the promised amount instead as a “consulting fee,” which avoided the precedent of admitting this was money owed, and included a non-disclosure agreement that would prevent me from saying anything but nice things about Telltale or the license."
posted by Iris Gambol at 4:45 PM on September 14 [10 favorites]

As ursus_comiter's comment indicates, it isn't really possible to put something in the public domain (as we used to understand it) anymore. There's also something called 'Copyright Termination' which allows authors to claw back their rights after thirty-five years, possibly even if they've released it to public domain/CC0. That's why Tom Lehrer had to set things up the way he did.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 5:10 PM on September 14 [1 favorite]

Wow, this sure sounds like some of the sneaky shit that DC did with/to Alan Moore, both in the eighties when he did the bulk of his work with them (Watchmen etc.) and in the late nineties/early aughts when they bought Jim Lee's WildStorm, which included Moore's America's Best Comics titles. This is confirmation that it wasn't just the Weirdo Wizard of Northampton that was treated this way.
posted by Halloween Jack at 5:48 PM on September 14 [3 favorites]

Fables is deeply, deeply racist shit, and I hope the only use it gets put to is to make things that piss off Bill Willingham even more than the continued existence of Arab people.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:49 PM on September 14 [13 favorites]

Well that explains why the Telltale game had a “we should improve society somewhat” theme about economic desperation and the comic was all …. no, nonhuman fables can’t have a revolution.
posted by Hypatia at 6:09 PM on September 14 [1 favorite]

Wow, this sure sounds like some of the sneaky shit that DC did with/to Alan Moore

It’s… certainly intended to. I would hold judgement on that a little.
posted by Artw at 6:36 PM on September 14

Whoa, I always wondered what happened to the Elementals guy!
posted by escabeche at 6:58 PM on September 14 [3 favorites]

I read through the entirety of Fables, having started back in the mid-to-late '00s when they put out those collected GNs. And I also introduced the series to some of my friends who just occasionally read comics then. The series seemed to peak around that Great War storyline, and may have overstayed its welcome a few story arcs past that.

I'd already heard of Willingham's questionable views previously, and now reading through some of the links posted here, this book is just 'eh, I read it, but I don't really want to ever bring it up now.'

It did help springboard James Jean into the art world, though?
posted by FarOutFreak at 7:02 PM on September 14 [2 favorites]

reading through some of the links posted here

I don’t see the incredibly cursed Brietbart one… possibly for the best.
posted by Artw at 7:04 PM on September 14

Yeah, I feel like if he really wanted to be ballsy about this he would have included a series of PDFs, but I do appreciate the thought.
posted by corb at 7:23 PM on September 14

Fables: come for the kind of interesting take on some things. Maybe don’t stay for the racism, sexism, and generally moral scold atmosphere that begins to pervade the comic as it develops.

It’s a damn shame because some of the stories are well done, but, weirdly, when the Enemy is portrayed as being a self-righteous prick who’s obsessed with propriety over actually being any kind of good… I mean, you’d think a guy who writes his villain like that wouldn’t end up being a boring, yet more unpleasant version of his own villain, right?

Did *any* Vertigo comics manage to hold up at all? I mean, sure, Sandman is there, but did any of the cool edgy comics they were putting out manage to be something still worth reading? Or is it mostly the kind of stuff that you look back at and feel bad for the kind of person you used to be who enjoyed things like that? Uh, asking for a friend…
posted by Ghidorah at 9:13 PM on September 14 [10 favorites]

I feel like if he really wanted to be ballsy about this he would have included a series of PDFs

It's unclear if he had copyright over the art as well as the writing (I'm guessing not.)

Did *any* Vertigo comics manage to hold up at all?

There should be a variation on Sturgeon's Law. 80% of *anything* doesn't hold up after twenty-odd years.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 9:20 PM on September 14 [3 favorites]

Grant Morrison's work springs to mind?
posted by Pronoiac at 9:25 PM on September 14 [5 favorites]

Morrison is a good chunk of that 20%.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 9:37 PM on September 14 [2 favorites]

Did *any* Vertigo comics manage to hold up at all?

This is a strange question, because I'd say the opposite is actually true: Vertigo books have a much higher than average level of staying power. It's really only a few of the later-period books that don't.
posted by star gentle uterus at 10:03 PM on September 14 [5 favorites]

Preacher, like all Ennis, kind of sags in the middle but is still fucking great.
posted by Artw at 10:42 PM on September 14 [4 favorites]

Mike Carey's Lucifer should get far more credit than it does for truly long-term storytelling (see also his various novels, as both Mike and M. R. Carey) Hellblazer up to the point Brian Azzarello takes over has some very high points, depending on your remaining tolerance for Warren Ellis (mine is sub-low). Books of Magic is an endearing, if inconsistent wander through what I guess we'd now call the Sandman Cinematic Universe...

But yeah, there was a lot of less-than-good Vertigo stuff. It was the grunge boom of literary comics - sign a 2000 A.D. writer, pretend they own their work, profit?
posted by prismatic7 at 1:40 AM on September 15 [5 favorites]

I might be conflating some non-Vertigo titles, but I was thinking Y the Last Man, DMZ, 100 Bullets, and things like that, which, oof. And I mean, I loved and still love some of the ideas DMZ plays with, but that’s gotta be one of the least bad in hindsight out there. 100 Bullets is painful now, or I was just incredibly oblivious then (both, unfortunately, and incredibly likely).
posted by Ghidorah at 2:20 AM on September 15

Putting your own work into the public domain is harder than it should be. Corporates have long lobbied for copyright maximalism, which is why anything creative automatically gains copyright, why it lasts so long (70 years after death of author, or 95 total for work for hire), and the Berne convention spreads this worldwide. Opting out is a mess of different rules in different jurisdictions, if it's even an option.

Thus a simpler option is to use a cc0 licence from creative commons. This is a copyleft license that mimics the public domain and explicitly waives all rights to the maximum extent allowed by law. So even if the work can't technically be public domain (such as moral rights, which are hard to actually nullify) a cc0 licence means everyone can treat it as such until its term is up everywhere.
posted by Absolutely No You-Know-What at 3:22 AM on September 15 [2 favorites]

Neil Gaiman is currently involved in several conversations on Bluesky about what this actually means, given that DC definitely owns the logo, and the whole point of Fables in the first place is that it's all public-domain characters, to the point that the original plan for the Big Bad was that it was going to be Peter Pan (because he kidnaps children, after all), but the character is in perpetual copyright in the UK (with proceeds going to the Great Ormond Street Hospital).

Gaiman's position at this point is basically GothyShrugEmoji.jpg.
posted by Etrigan at 4:41 AM on September 15 [4 favorites]

Did *any* Vertigo comics manage to hold up at all?

Personally, I think Doom Patrol and The Invisibles, are still very strong (if somewhat products of their time), and I think The Unwritten is much stronger than Lucifer, if you want a Mike Carey comic.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:58 AM on September 15 [4 favorites]

For me at least Vertigo is the strongest part of 90s comics, not really handing that distinction over until Image started getting really interesting in the late 00s/10s.
posted by Artw at 8:29 AM on September 15 [4 favorites]

IANAL, but I don't think this declaration has any more legal weight than when Dril declares this summer the "Summer of Gaming"
posted by credulous at 10:18 AM on September 15 [1 favorite]

Whoa, I always wondered what happened to the Elementals guy!

This. (Mildly NSFW)
Oh, and this. (Also NSFW, but maybe worth it if you're nostalgic about old-school D&D.)

So. Yeah.
posted by The Bellman at 10:20 AM on September 15 [1 favorite]

More Bill history, just got reminded of this disastrous panel.
posted by Artw at 10:33 AM on September 15

This reminds me of the Open Gaming License discussions, and WOTC and Hasbro trying to "undo" that "open source" publication.

The law is determined by who can hire the lawyers, y'all
posted by eustatic at 11:10 AM on September 15

the original plan for the Big Bad was that it was going to be Peter Pan (because he kidnaps children, after all), but the character is in perpetual copyright in the UK

I guess they got that sorted out because Peter Pan features in the current storyline they started last year.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 11:17 AM on September 15

Cory Doctorow weighs in: Pluralistic: Bill Willingham puts his graphic novel series “Fables” into the public domain (15 Sept 2023) – Pluralistic: Daily links from Cory Doctorow

The whole thing is worth reading, but he gets into the weeds of what Willingham is trying to do.
Willingham could clarify his "public domain" dedication by applying a Creative Commons license to Fables, but which license? That's a thorny question. What Willingham really wants here is a sampling license – a license that allows licensees to take some of the elements of his work, combine them with other parts, and make something new.

But no CC license fits that description. Every CC license applies to whole works. If you want to license the bass-line from your song but not the melody, you have to release the bass-line separately and put a CC license on that. You can't just put a CC license on the song with an asterisked footnote that reads "just the bass, though."
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 11:18 AM on September 15 [1 favorite]

DC: Nuh-uh
posted by Etrigan at 11:28 AM on September 15 [3 favorites]

Discussion of this case is kind of pointless, because it's going to turn entirely on the specific language of Willingham's contract(s) with DC, to which neither we nor other creators like Neil Gaim are privy. Willingham claims that his agreement grants him sole ownership of all IP associated with Fables, and therefore free to take this action. Whether that is accurate or not we can't know. Hopefully he spoke to his own lawyers before doing this.

DC: Nuh-uh

Regardless of the merit of Willingham's position, he had to have known DC wouldn't take this lying down. If he thinks this route was going to avoid litigation with DC he was sorely mistaken.
posted by star gentle uterus at 11:59 AM on September 15 [1 favorite]

Huh, I was just looking at the indicia for Fables #150, the final issue of the original run (emphasis added):
Published by DC Comics. Compilation Copyright © 2015 Bill Willingham and
DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.
Copyright @ 2015 Bill Willingham and DC Comics. All Rights Reserved. All characters, their distinctive likenesses and related elements featured in this publication are trademarks of Bill Willingham.
So Willingham and DC share the copyright but Willingham alone holds the trademarks? This is going to be a mess.
posted by star gentle uterus at 3:55 PM on September 15 [2 favorites]

I would not touch making "Fables" stuff with a ten foot pole unless I had a very expert IP lawyer willing to defend me for cheap, for the long haul. I am sure DC has a lot more money to pay lawyers than I do.

I mean I also don't have much of a desire to contribute to the genre of "public domain kid's characters have adult problems", comics is already kind of glutted with everyone's attempts to get noticed by doing "Snow White with guns and a sword and a vendetta against the Three Huge Hogs who run all the crime in this dirty town" or whatever, but man I would not want to do the edgeplay game of getting a lot of free promotion out of DC suing me. There's probably a few small comics presses who are pondering that game right now though.

(And that's before all the "hey check out this kinda jerky thing Bill did" notes in here, I never really paid any attention to the book beyond a vague noticing that it existed.)

(Also, "The Guns Of Snow White" pivots to "The Excellent Adventures of Hans My Hedgehog" in issue #17, after the enthusiastic fan response to his introduction as Snow's wise-cracking, hyper-violent sidekick in issue #8.)
posted by egypturnash at 7:08 PM on September 15 [3 favorites]

So how does one do this? Is this an ‘I Declare Bankruptcy’ situation?
posted by bq at 7:58 AM on September 16


their legal negotiators tried to make it a condition of the deal that the work be done as work for hire, effectively throwing the property irrevocably into the hands of DC. When that didn’t work their excuse was, “Sorry, we didn’t read your contract going into these negotiations. We thought we owned it.

This is why agents exist. Artists needing protection from exploitation. It sucks.
posted by bq at 7:59 AM on September 16 [2 favorites]

I'm glad I'm unfamiliar with Willingham-the-person and also glad that my memory of Fables is sufficiently faded that I can just recall it as a story I mostly enjoyed at the time. It does seem like it would be a cool setting for a TV show.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 8:54 PM on September 16 [1 favorite]

It does seem like it would be a cool setting for a TV show.

Once Upon a Time had promise, and a good season or two but then they did Oz and Neverland and I noped out.
posted by soelo at 8:29 PM on September 18 [1 favorite]

That podcast mentions a DC contract that’s out there on the internet that was part of an offer made to Dave Sim to illustrate a volume of Fables in 2005. I have a certain amount of opinions about DC trying to work with Dave Sim, raging misogynist and suspected (censored) on ANYTHING in 2005, when he was already glowing radioactive. And this is surely a different contract than that negotiated by Willingham at a later date and as a writer instead of an artist. But it’s interesting.

I’m not a literary agent or a lawyer but I’ve seen a lot of contracts and Sim’s notes seem mostly reasonable. I’m bothered by schedule B and C paragraph 2, where it seems that the Artist’s royalty payments are directly affected by whatever advances DC may have paid to any collaborators. I’m extremely bothered by 9 (c) which binds the artist to whatever fucking royalty scheme DC wants for reprints. Sim does not flag either of these.

Here are the links to the contract and notes with some other Sim documents.

posted by bq at 4:22 PM on September 29

Honestly sounds like DC got the better part of that deal, ending up not having to deal with Sim.

FWIW a bunch of writers have quietly vacated their contracts with Vertigo and gone on to take their work elsewhere, so it is a thing that is doable. All of the cases I’ve heard of it have been for much less high profile projects and, pribably more importantly, not anything that’s actively making DC money.
posted by Artw at 5:03 PM on September 29

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