The Confusing Case Of Lovecraft's Copyrights

from the ph'nglui-mglw'nafh-Cthulhu-R'lyeh-wgah'nagl-fhtagn dept

It was Joseph Kranak who first told me of the thing. I didn't comprehend it then—the forbidden aeons, the timeless machinations that grind man's very essence to dust. At first his story seemed fine but mundane: an expedition to collect the famed texts of H. P. Lovecraft, which were rumoured to be in America. But it soon became so hideous I almost thought him a madman:

To start off, any book published prior to 1923 is in the public domain. Some of Lovecraft's early works fall in this time period. But all of his most famous works, including "Call of Cthulhu," "Dreams in the Witch House," "At the Mountains of Madness" and so on were written after 1923. Before 1976, all works had to be registered with the copyright office to avoid falling into the public domain, and many of Lovecraft's works (the ones published in amateur presses) were almost certainly never registered. Additionally, any work published between the years 1923-1963, not only had to have been originally registered, but had to have that copyright renewed sometime between 1950 and 1992 to avoid avoid falling into the public domain. If it was renewed, then it is copyrighted until 95 years after publication. Unfortunately, there's no official database that explicitly lists which works published before 1963 had their copyright renewed. The Copyright Office has an online database of works renewed after 1977, but if the work was renewed from 1950-1977, that requires searching through the copyright office's database of physical paper records.

With assistance from fellow scholars, he pursued this eldritch knowledge with urgency, for it had sunk its barbed talons into his mind and awoken a fevered interest. Things only grew more perilous as he discovered that there are lurking creatures and ancient dynasties who claim domain over the Lovecraft texts. They carry decrepit tablets pocked with the inscrutable runes of arcane tongues:

It is generally believed that Lovecraft retained all rights to his works published from 1926 forward (though we don't have documentation to confirm this). In the period 1923-25, he published a few works in amateur presses like The Tryout that didn't register their copyrights, and six works in Weird Tales, which did register its copyrights. Weird Tales did transfer whatever rights it held to [August] Derleth and [Donald] Wandrei and Arkham House in 1947 ... Of the rights to the remaining 21 works published from 1926-37, that Lovecraft retained rights to, his rights were transferred, upon his death in 1937, to his only heir, his aunt, Annie Gamwell. Gamwell transferred the royalties in her will to Derleth and Wandrei, but the copyrights she held and these were transferred to her heirs, Edna Lewis and Ethel Morrish. Lewis and Morrish subsequently transferred at least some of their rights to Arkham House in an agreement. The problem is that the language of the agreement in which Morrish and Lewis ostensibly gave rights to Derleth and Wandrei is not clear about what rights are being transferred.

As he spoke, I felt my thoughts go dark and cold, as though falling into the void that I now knew had always seethed beneath the fickle and fissiparous veil we call reality. All mankind's simple joys—the stories we share with our friends, the songs we sing at our gatherings—were in fact but facets of this thing, this malevolent will at work in dark recesses of the cosmic wasteland. It operates outside time, outside reason—an omnipotent urge that demands nothing but control and the mindless submission of its unwilling subjects. Somehow in that moment I heard its foul name, a maddening proto-sound that my fancy assigned to a single cryptic glyph: ©

When many minds would flee to frenzied madness or purge themselves and lay fallow in ignorance, Kranak ventured onwards in pursuit of the essential truth and nature of ©. But his journey ended in an absence of endings, for what he uncovered then was a torturous paradox—an utter lack of resolvable truth that implicitly creates its own truth, a void that fills itself. He learned that the insidious beast of © can assail common sense by growing more dangerous as it dies, and is sometimes at its strongest when it does not exist at all:

For my money, I'd say all of Lovecraft's are probably in the public domain … but there really is no answer to the question of their copyright status. Were the rights properly renewed? Were they transferred to Arkham House? Copyright law has been stretched so far into the past that lost documentation, orphaned works and uncertainties about ownership become more and more problematic. All we can say is that if someone were to challenge copyright ownership, a court would be able to come to a decision, but the decision could go either way. It's doubtful it'll be worth anyone's time and money to try and resolve this in court, and this makes the situation de facto as if the copyrights still hold, since no one wants to risk getting sued (though the copyright holders haven't, at least so far been zealous in pursuing their lawsuits). So, long as no one challenges their claim, the persons claiming to own the rights, own them by default. And the issue won't really be resolved until 2032 when the last of Lovecraft's works published in his lifetime will enter the public domain (and I'm excluding the few posthumous publications, which appeared as late as 1944), unless there's another copyright extension, which would just push all of this mess forward.

As I contemplated this wicked entanglement, this inescapable pall clutching the fruits of human sentience, this tenacious threat keeping eager hearts at bay, I was reminded of words once written by Lovecraft himself—words I had read in a forbidden tome but never truly apprehended until then: that is not dead which can eternal lie.



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    Josh in CharlotteNC (profile), Jul 14th, 2011 @ 4:47pm

    Copyright

    "It seemed to be a sort of monster, or symbol representing a monster, of a form which only a diseased fancy could conceive."

     

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    Rick, Jul 14th, 2011 @ 4:49pm

    I've dealt with this before, and the fact is that Arkham House or Derleth must prove its ownership. And that means authenticating all of the documents transferring rights.

    "Either way" -- not likely, as many heirs of old works have discovered in the courts.

     

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      Marcus Carab (profile), Jul 14th, 2011 @ 6:14pm

      Re:

      Unfortunately, for someone to treat them as public domain works, it would still likely require lawyers and filing fees and, generally, lots of money. It's certainly not impossible, but that's not the problem - the real shame is that these revered works are probably legally in the public domain, to be shared and built upon freely by anyone without pause or concern... and yet they effectively aren't, at least not until someone with deep pockets steps up to confirm it.

       

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        Anonymous Coward, Jul 14th, 2011 @ 7:33pm

        Re: Re:

        Sounds like a worthy Kickstarter project!

         

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          Marcus Carab (profile), Jul 14th, 2011 @ 8:02pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          Interesting idea - though in that case I wonder if the efforts could be better directed, perhaps towards something more high profile. If you went after AOL-Time Warner for Happy Birthday (also likely in the public domain) you could probably get half the television producers in America to contribute :)

           

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            Mike42 (profile), Jul 18th, 2011 @ 6:40am

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            Dude, Lovecraft is far more popular than you realize. His mythos was part of the original Deities and Demigods AD&D book, and Chaosium has an entire role playing game devoted to it. He has a very dedicated cult following, so I'd say it's worth a shot.

             

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        btr1701 (profile), Jul 14th, 2011 @ 9:38pm

        Re: Re:

        > these revered works are probably legally in the public domain, to
        > be shared and built upon freely by anyone without pause
        > or concern... and yet they effectively aren't, at least not until
        > someone with deep pockets steps up to confirm it.

        Stephen King has used the Lovecraft universe and built upon it in a few of his stories, most notably "Crouch End".

         

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    John, Jul 14th, 2011 @ 4:53pm

    At least some of his copyrights...

     

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      Terry Hancock (profile), Jul 14th, 2011 @ 5:47pm

      Re: At least some of his copyrights...

      Those all appear to be copyrights on collections of works.

      How does the initial registration of a collection affect the copyright on the contained stories? Does that count as a "renewal" for the stories contained?

      In some cases, the contained stories were already in the public domain at the time of publication. In others, they would have entered the public domain after publication, but well before the renewals.

       

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      Bez Bezson, Dec 3rd, 2013 @ 4:26am

      Re: At least some of his copyrights...

      I've not thoroughly checked, but it looks to me like all of those are collections of HPL's works, not individual stories.

      So, those collections were renewed, but the stories within them probably weren't.

       

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    Esahc (profile), Jul 14th, 2011 @ 5:12pm

    Your Lovecraftian prose was spot on; I applaud you good sir.

     

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    Bruce Ediger (profile), Jul 14th, 2011 @ 5:16pm

    I think you can expect a DMCA takedown notice

     

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    Bruce Ediger (profile), Jul 14th, 2011 @ 5:18pm

    I think you can expect a DMCA takedown notice

    This prose very definitely evokes a copyrighted work. I presume that the rightholders will exercize their droit du seigneur, and get your evocation taken down.

    And I have it on good, Anonymously Cowardly authority that Fair Use does not hold for evocation of copyrighted works.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Jul 14th, 2011 @ 5:34pm

    Ia! Ia! Cthulhu Fhtagn!

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Jul 14th, 2011 @ 6:09pm

    As a big Lovecraft fan (my license plate says KTHULHU ffs), the tenor and tempo of the prose was so fun! Would read again++++++

     

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    out_of_the_blue, Jul 14th, 2011 @ 6:18pm

    Lovecraft locked up by the mysteries of copyright? Good! It's CRAP.

    I gave up on him as hopelessly stupid in high school.

    You guys keep coming up with reasons for me to like copyright.

     

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      ChurchHatesTucker (profile), Jul 14th, 2011 @ 6:24pm

      Re: Lovecraft locked up by the mysteries of copyright? Good! It's CRAP.

      I gave up on him as hopelessly stupid in high school.

      You guys keep coming up with reasons for me to like copyright.


      Well, yeah. If you want to prevent the distribution of speech, then copyright is obviously your friend.

       

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      Marcus Carab (profile), Jul 14th, 2011 @ 7:16pm

      Re: Lovecraft locked up by the mysteries of copyright? Good! It's CRAP.

      So one minute you're preaching the end of capitalism and the diffusion of governments and other power centres, and the next you're judging laws based on your personal tastes. Are you a socialist or a fascist, Blue?

       

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    Chris Rhodes (profile), Jul 14th, 2011 @ 6:24pm

    This. Is. Awesome

    Love the post. I never realized that the lurking, alien horrors that seek to devour us and drive men to madness were related to intellectual property, but now that you mention it, it seems obvious.

    I guess the best thing to do, if you want to use Lovecraft's work, would be to pick a single story and research it through history to build a case, then cross your fingers and pray to whatever elder god you fancy might be listening.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Jul 14th, 2011 @ 6:36pm

    ©thulhu fhtagn.

     

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    Transbot9, Jul 14th, 2011 @ 8:25pm

    As I understand it...

    I heard Lovecraft didn't consider copyright that big of a deal. His mythos was borrowed from others of the genre even when he was alive. Granted, Lovecraft's own views have little to do with the actual law, but it almost seems like saying the Picasso Estate owns Cubism and the Braque Estate better pay up.*

    *NOTE: I don't know if there is an estate around for either artist; for those who don't know art history, Picasso did not invent Cubism alone - him and Braque were creatively feeding off each other

     

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      Marcus Carab (profile), Jul 14th, 2011 @ 8:47pm

      Re: As I understand it...

      Truth be told, Lovecraft the man was a total dick. Not sure what his views on copyright were, though.

       

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      Alien Bard, Jul 14th, 2011 @ 8:48pm

      Re: As I understand it...

      I did a study of Lovecraft in my younger days and I think he would have enjoyed watching the lawyers struggle through this legal mire. According to the notes and other material I have read he disliked both copyright and lawyers. Unfortunately you are correct that copyright laws have little to do with the wishes or beliefs of actual content creators.

       

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        Marcus Carab (profile), Jul 14th, 2011 @ 9:13pm

        Re: Re: As I understand it...

        I'm guessing (and perhaps you can confirm or deny) that part of his attitude towards copyright came from his approach to fiction. Lovecraft wasn't looking to rest on the laurels of a single great work - he was creating a mythos, a whole damn universe, and he knew that if he engaged people with that creation then they would keep clamouring for more and he wouldn't have to worry about the old stuff.

         

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    btr1701 (profile), Jul 14th, 2011 @ 9:36pm

    The Truth Revealed

    I love it.

    Nyarlathotep, The Crawling Chaos = Copyright

    Yog-Sothoth, The Lurker at the Threshold, The Key and the Gate = Trademark

    Shub-Niggurath, The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young = Patent

    Who knew?

     

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      The eejit (profile), Jul 15th, 2011 @ 1:13am

      Re: The Truth Revealed

      Does that mean Cthulhu was Public Domain?

       

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        anothermike, Jul 15th, 2011 @ 12:01pm

        Re: Re: The Truth Revealed

        Public domain is the invincible dreaming dead god... yeah I can see it. Or maybe the great old one is "culture". Re-examine Call of Cthulhu with that insight. The explorers awaken something primal and frightening, with terrible implications for the establishment.
        And now thinking of At the Mountains of Madness, the shoggoth are disruptive innovation. They were enslaved by the elder things, doing their work for them. And then the shoggoth overthrew the elder things and created a new culture built on top of the old one.

         

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    Anonymous Coward, Jul 15th, 2011 @ 5:46am

    Public domain in Europe

    Since in Europe (EU) a work enters the public domain 70 years after the creators death, Lovecraft is in the public domain here.

     

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    Dark Helmet (profile), Jul 15th, 2011 @ 6:03am

    Well done!

    Marcus, this was...amazing.

     

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    Hephaestus (profile), Jul 15th, 2011 @ 6:23am

    Marcus, you sound like a combo of lovecraft mixed with V from the movie V is for vendetta in this post. I like :) and +1'd this article-post.

     

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    Hephaestus (profile), Jul 15th, 2011 @ 6:35am

    Oh, and mike, give up your day job ... you have been replaced. ;)

     

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    JustMe (profile), Jul 15th, 2011 @ 6:44am

    Well written, Marcus

    Plus, how did you know that 'fissiparous' was today's secret word?

     

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    Not an Electronic Rodent (profile), Jul 15th, 2011 @ 7:59am

    Oh, dear me!

    Dammit, there's no voting buttons for articles! I spent quite some time after I picked myself up off the floor looking for a "SO funny I damn near soiled myself!" button. Very, very well written sir! *doffs cap* extra points for being funny and having a very valid point at the same time.

     

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    Rafael, Jul 15th, 2011 @ 8:10am

    /slowclap

     

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    Rafael, Jul 15th, 2011 @ 8:11am

    /slowclap

     

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    Mr. LemurBoy (profile), Jul 15th, 2011 @ 8:13am

    Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Copyright M'AFIAA wgah'nagl fhtagn



    Seriously, this was an awesome post. Thanks Marcus!

     

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    trish, Jul 15th, 2011 @ 1:28pm

    u remind me of A conan doyle

    i been reading sherlock holmes these days and this was very similar writing style. I wish I could speak like this and not sound geeky lol

     

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    Ye Queen of Eldritch Horror, Jul 16th, 2011 @ 1:56pm

    Ye Eldritch Gent

    S. T. Joshi's Corrected Texts versions of Lovecraft's fiction may in fact be the property of S. T. Joshi, since they are newly edited and corrected and appeared for the first time in the Arkham House Corrected Text Editions. One thing I've never fully understood is if there is now an H. P. Lovecraft Estate that attempts to control publication of the Works and payment culled therefrom.

    The web continues to be a place for clueless yobs to state such nonsense as "Lovecraft was a dick," when in fact he was quite a charming fellow in almoft every way. His treatment of his wife was unkind, but very little is actually known about their relationship, intimate or otherwise, and Sonia destroy'd all of HP's letters to her, alas.

    I have been reading Lovecraft continually since the 1970's, and he becomes more and more brilliant, unique and awesome in power as a Literary Artist as I age -- a Fabulous Immortal Indeed!

     

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      Marcus Carab (profile), Jul 16th, 2011 @ 8:01pm

      Re: Ye Eldritch Gent

      Sorry that you think I'm a clueless yob, but I was basing my assessment on the linked article which describes his fervent racism. Sounds like kind of a dick to me.

       

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    Grim Reviews, Aug 2nd, 2011 @ 11:07am

    Lovecraftian Copyrights

    The strange case of H.P. Lovecraft's copyright status on his fiction is an interesting one, to be sure. To the best of my knowledge, all of Lovecraft's own work has been decisively in the public domain for several years now. Additional rights apply to scholars and publishers who go through and "revise" Lovecraft's text, or add their own annotations. The Penguin collections edited by S.T. Joshi are a good example of this.

    The copyright status of the revisions he co-wrote/ghost wrote for other authors is questionable too. There are a few cases where these tales are also in the public domain. In other instances, copyright status is a lot murkier, since many writers who worked with Lovecraft still have active estates that will hunt down any unauthorized republications of their works.

     

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    James Hutchings, Oct 11th, 2011 @ 5:35am

    wikisource.

    http://en.wikisource.org (connected to wikipedia) have several HP Lovecraft stories available, indicating that they believe they're in the public domain.

     

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