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.