Around 15 years ago, I started doing some research concerning copyrights and pulp publications. While the business venture I was contemplating didn't come to pass, it did spawn an interest in the area of copyright law, the history and the philosophies behind it. After my initial excursion to DC, I discovered even more issues and misconceptions concerning comics of the same time period of the pulps as well as conflicting stories about various characters and companies.
Recently, I headed to DC for several days and spent two days at the Library of Congress researching various comic book companies of the late 1930s and early 1940s and some of the mysteries and issues concerning them. There were a few surprises along the way concerning very popular characters at companies today. It all started with looking into the titles put out by "Busy" Arnold and Quality Comics and the sale to DC in 1956 and morphed into looking into other titles, companies and rumors while I was there such as what was really the status of the Fawcett characters, the titles of Fiction House, and the possibility of the first comic that Namor appeared in being public domain. Along the way, uncovered an even bigger mystery with Charlton Comics and some misconceptions concerning the Nedor titles.
I am not a lawyer and this should not be taken as a legal document. It IS based on research and knowledge available to the public. I heartily recommend anyone seeking to use characters from the comics of the time or entering into doing reprint business to conduct research of their own if not actually seeking the advice of an attorney specializing in such matters. This article is to open up discussion and clear up misconceptions and mysteries about various companies and characters.
Also, all findings and facts are susceptible to human error and/or culpability. Info was filled out and filed by humans over a half of a century ago and completely open to the public and researchers over the years. Things go missing, filed incorrectly and such. And due to the inconsistencies in the filing system, information can easily be missed or overlooked.
Also, I did NOT research every title for each publisher or the copyrights of each and every issue. Luckily for periodicals, years worth of copyrights for the individual issues can be found on one or two cards. I tried to pick a cross-section of titles for the publishers, focusing on the early years. I mainly looked for trends in registering and renewing. Again, if you are interested in doing something with a specific character or comic, it is always best to do the research yourself.
I also did not research MLJ/Archie due to time constraints and there have been no rumors or conflicting reports concerning their copyrights so I have no reason to believe that their titles weren't renewed though there is always that possibility.
Library of Congress and doing the research
Up to 1977, all the research can be done in person at the Library of Congress via card catalogs. The Library breaks the cards into groupings of blocks of years. One room covers pre-1938. The next grouping is up to 1941, then 1941-1955, 1955-1971, 1972-1977 and after that, the information is online.
The alphabetizing system is inconsistent. Ideally it should be along the lines of:
- Air, Ralph
- Air Fighters
- Air filters
However, the reality sometimes is more like:
- Air, Ralph
- Air Fighters
- Air filters
- Air Fighters
The next hurdle is just the way the registration is handled. Knowing the name of the title you wish to research is only one step of the battle. Some cases, it is as straight forward as just looking up the title. However, in other cases, a card may be found that lists the copyright information concerning volume 2 from 1941 of Captain Amazon-Man by Big Comics. The card will have a reference "for issues previous to 1941 see 'Comics Publishing Company'" and possibly even for "current issues see 'Big Comics Publications'". So, any preparatory research into the names the Publishers published under will be a big help. Usually there's a reference card telling you what company to look under for a specific title's copyright information, but in the cases where no copyright information found, it could always be a case that a cross-reference card was not made and the researcher is unaware of the company name the publisher registered the comic under. Researching just one title can have a researcher going through three or four drawers of cards trying to cover all the options.
There are a couple of good sites for doing research online. Copyright information from 1978 to the present can be researched at the Library of Congress site. This includes the renewal information for titles originally posted circa 1950 and forward.
For renewal records before 1978, you can go here. It's a little more cumbersome as it is broken down by year and the records are actually gif files so it requires a little more homework to be done in knowing the original publication years. These are ONLY renewal records and not original copyright registrations. However, there are links to pdf copies of registration records broken down by years which might be worth checking out.
The Copyrights by Company
Pre-1938 and Special Comics
NEW FUN (1935) One of the first comics with new stories, featuring Siegel and Shuster's Dr. Occult and Henri Duval. Looked under the title, National Periodical Publications and Wheeler-Nicholson. Until 1938, there is no notice of copyright registration. No notice of renewal found at all for this title.
THE COMIC MAGAZINE (1936) an early title by what would become Centaur Comics, copyrighted under Comic Magazines, Inc. There is a notation of a renewal but no renewal card found. The first issue continued the Siegel and Shuster character Dr. Occult as Dr. Mystic for just 2 pages.
COLOSSUS COMICS (1940) sole title by Sun Publications. No record for registration or renewal
FUNNY PICTURE STORIES (1936) Comic Magazines, Inc. 1st issue copyrighted, 2-9 no record of original registration. No notice of renewal found.
GREEN GIANT (1940) Pelican/Funnies Inc. No record of registration or renewal.
DETECTIVE PICTURE STORIES Comic Magazines, Inc. No record of registration.
MOTION PICTURE FUNNIES (1939) This is an early comic by the studio that would supply Timely with features for Marvel Comics #1. It included the origin story for Namor (they'd add a couple of more pages for Marvel Comics). No record of registration nor notice of renewal found. This makes an interesting loophole regarding Namor as by definition, his appearance in Marvel Comics #1 would be a derivative work and could be argued that all subsequent uses of him as well. Everything Marvel has done with the character would be copyrighted and trademarked, but his basic origin story not.
Ace Publications (Ace Magazines, Inc; Periodical House, Inc)
SURE-FIRE COMICS (1940) No record of copyright.
SUPER-MYSTERY COMICS (1940), LIGHTNING (1942), FOUR FAVORITES (1941), BANNER COMICS (1941), OUR FLAG (1941) all had records of copyrights under one of the company names. However, no notice of renewal found researching by title or any of the publisher names.
Better (Standard, Nedor, Thrilling, Ned Pines, Popular Library)
Ah, the company of many names which has caused quite a bit of confusion. This is a prime example of researching each individual title and comic if you really want to be sure of the status. Because of the rampant use of characters like Fighting Yank, Black Terror, Doc Strange, and Captain Future, one would believe the characters to be public domain, free and clear.
And be wrong.
Many of the titles were registered and early issues of the anthology titles EXCITING, THRILLING as well as the 2nd issue of the FIGHTING YANK were renewed by Popular Library, the pulp and paperback arm of Ned Pines publishing concerns. Popular Library should not be confused with Popular Publications, the pulp publisher behind THE SPIDER and G-8 which were also renewed by their company and is under the Argosy imprint the last time I looked. Popular Library also renewed quite a few of the various pulp titles including the PHANTOM DETECTIVE, BLACK BOOK (featuring the Black Bat) and CAPTAIN FUTURE which may come as quite a shock to John Gunnison who has reprinted quite a few of those with no notice of copyright renewal. However, there's no notice of the Black Terror title being renewed, but his early appearances in EXCITING were.
In 1970 Popular Library was sold to Fawcett Books which in 1977 was sold to CBS, Inc which is how CBS ended up renewing various 1950s pulps put out by Standard/Better/Thrilling/Nedor/*gasp* Popular though not the few comics from that line still limping along at that point. They did renew various Captain Marvel titles though.
In 1982 CBS divested itself of Fawcett and Popular with Popular apparently going to Warner Communications (who owns DC) and Fawcett to Ballentine.
Does this mean that DC owns the right to various characters from the Standard Line? It all depends on what was in the sales themselves. According to the clerks at the Library of Congress, it is fairly common for when a publisher buys another publisher, it is for the trademarks and they don't bother purchasing the copyrights (detailed in the Quality section below). However, this case is about purchasing a book publisher who just happens to publish pulps and comics. It would make sense for the purchaser to want to purchase all rights to their library. It would make sense, but doesn't mean it was the case. So, more research is required and if there is any interest in the stories and characters from this company, research is recommended for specific individual cases.
Centaur (Comic Corporation of America)
AMAZING ADVENTURE FUNNIES (1940), AMAZING MAN COMICS (1939 under Comic Corporation of America), FANTOMAN #2 ,3 (1940), FUNNY PAGES(1938), KEEN KOMICS (1939), KEEN DETECTIVE FUNNIES (1938), STAR COMICS #10 (1938), STARS & STRIPES (1941), SUPER SPY (1940). All copyrighted originally. No notice of renewal.
Not a GA company but a mystery that was uncovered. In researching Blue Beetle renewals for Fox, the only copyright cards unearthed from 1955-1971 was for a song by the name of the Blue Beetle. At first the significance didn't hit me as I wasn't really expecting to see a renewal card for the Fox property. However, there should have been a few for the Charlton different titles and versions (4 different Blue Beetle titles) of the character. Not even a cross reference card. I looked under Charlton. Nothing for any of their titles. "Captain Atom" likewise turned up nothing. Were none of the titles registered? Or was there a different company name that they were filed under and no cross-reference cards were made under their main company name and individual titles? Nor is there any record of DC (or anybody else) renewing copyrights to the late 1950s and early 60s Charlton Material although titles post 1964 should be eligible for automatic renewal. Wrap your head around that one. This means that Captain Atom, the Question, Blue Beetle (whether he's the scarab powered Dan Garrett or the techno hero Ted Kord), ... may all be public domain. Or may not. One source indicates that 1964 as the starting point of when works would automatically be copyrighted if the work contains proper mark and notation without having to formally register with the Library of Congress. However, reading through the copyright law at the Library of Congress web pages, I cannot find proper notation to that effect. In the history and important dates section, there is no mention of important legislation at that time concerning copyright registration. However, re-reading various aspects of copyright law, it does seem that automatic protection to "published" works with proper notation may have been part of copyright law at least since 1909! A work would have to have been properly registered at some point during its first 28 years to have been renewed though. So, rule of thumb: Dan Garret Blue Beetle, yellow and orange/red Captain Atom are pd, the Dan Garrett and Ted Kord Blue Beetle, red and blue and silver Captain Atom are not. Least not til more research can be done.
Nor is there any renewal information concerning their first BLUE BEETLE series (1955), SPACE ADVENTURES (1954/55 #13 & 14 with the Blue Beetle; 1958 #33, debut of Captain Atom), NATURE BOY, and MISTER MUSCLES.
PUNCH COMICS (1941), YANKEE COMICS (1941), DYNAMIC COMICS (1941), SCOOP COMICS (1941). No record of registration. Looked under titles, Chesler and Harry A Chesler (both as an individual under "C" and as a company name under "H"). The closest was a reference under his name to King Kole Cola but had nothing to do with his comic book company.
BIG SHOT (1940), FACE (1941), Copyrighted but no notice of renewal.
SKYMAN (1941) No record of registration.
Dell (R. S. Callender)
CRACKAJACK COMICS, THE FUNNIES, SUPER COMICS, POPULAR COMICS. Dell titles are an interesting case. As they were anthology books with licensed characters and strip reprints, only the new material created by Dell for the books were copyrighted separately under R. S. Callender. These included Phantasmo from THE FUNNIES, the Owl from CRACKAJACK, Supermind and Son from POPULAR. No notice of renewal on any of them by title or under Dell or R. S. Callender.
Eastern (Famous Funnies)
HEROIC COMICS (1940) The title that gave us Hydroman, Purple Zombie and Man O'Metal. No registration card under title or publishers
SLAM BANG COMICS (1940), MASTER COMICS (1940), WOW COMICS (1941), NICKEL COMICS (1940), MINUTEMAN (1941). All titles have records of original copyright registration. However, renewal of the titles is spotty. No notice of renewals of these until 1945 other than a handful of Captain Marvel titles. In 1945, the various comics from Fawcett start getting renewed: MASTER COMICS #61 on up has been renewed as was WOW COMICS from 1945 #36-69, the latter half of its run as well as various Captain Marvel and his related books. A surprise is that Captain Marvel's first appearance in WHIZ COMICS #2 (not even counting the ashcan) was not renewed though issues 3-6 were.
In 1977, CBS, Inc bought Fawcett Publications and started renewing titles with the various Marvel Family members (CAPTAIN MARVEL, CAPTAIN MARVEL JR, MASTER, MARVEL FAMILY, and WHIZ) that were originally published in 1951 and onwards. Ibis the Invincible, Golden Arrow and Lance O'Casey were about the only non-Marvel Family superhero/adventure character still being published by this point, in the pages of WHIZ.
An interesting case, almost every Fiction House title had a referral card to a different company each time. JUMBO COMICS (1938) to Real Adventures, JUNGLE COMICS (1940) to Glen Kel Publishing Company, FIGHT COMICS (1940) to Fight Stories, Inc., SHEENA (1942). No notices of renewal under the title names nor the various company names.
Fox (Fox Publications, Fox Features, Bruns Publications)
WONDER COMICS (1939), WONDERWORLD COMICS (1939), MYSTERYMEN COMICS (1939), FANTASTIC COMICS(1939). BLUE BEETLE (1940), BIG 3 (1940), SAMSON (1940), WEIRD (1940), THE FLAME (1940), THE GREEN MASK (1940), SCIENCE COMICS (1939/1940). All registered for copyrights originally, but no notices for renewals.
Great Comics (Great Comics Publications, Inc)
GREAT COMICS (1941), CHOICE COMICS (1941) registered but no notice of renewal.
Harvey (All Family Comics, Champ Publishing Company)
CHAMPION COMICS (1939) #1. Overstreet and the GCD mention this title starting with issue #2. However, there is record of issue #1 being copyrighted: B422614.
ALL-NEW COMICS (1943) registered but no notice of renewal
BLACK CAT (1946) An interesting case, no notice of renewal except for the last three issues (63, 64, and 65 from 1962-63) by Alfred Harvey which were mostly if not all reprints of the 1940 issues.
SPEED COMICS (1939) Issues 20-24, 26, and 30 were rejected for copyright. This notation on the card is an oddity according to the clerk at the card catalogues. As the card catalogues are for "registered works", the only indicator that a book might be rejected should be just a gap in the record, but this notation lets us know for sure that there is no oversight in this case, those issues never got registered. Issues prior to 17 and 42-44, there are no records.
Other than the odd Black Cat issues, no record of renewal.
Hillman (Hillman Periodicals, Inc; Hillman-Curl, Inc)
MIRACLE COMICS (1940) to Hillman-Curl, Inc, VICTORY COMICS (1941), CLUE COMICS (1941), AIR FIGHTERS (1941). ROCKET COMICS (1940) to Hillman-Curl, Inc. Titles registered originally, no notice of renewal.
Holyoke (TEM, Helnit, Bilbara Nita)
CRASH COMICS (1940), CATMAN COMICS (1941), CAPTAIN FEARLESS (1941), CAPTAIN AERO (1941), CYCLONE COMICS (1940), WHIRLWIND COMICS (1940). No notice of registration but for one single issue: vol 1 #6 of CATMAN COMICS to Helnit. No notice of renewal.
Hyper Publications, Inc
HYPER MYSTERY COMICS (1940) registered but no notice of renewal.
Lev Gleason (Comic House, New Friday Publications, Your Guide Publications)
SILVER STREAK COMICS (1939) copyrighted by Your Guide, BOY COMICS (1942) by Comic House, CRIME DOES NOT PAY (1942) by Comic House, CAPTAIN BATTLE (1941) by Comic House, DAREDEVIL BATTLES HITLER (1941) by Your Guide. No notices of renewal across the board.
TOPS COMICS (1944) No notice of registration or renewal.
STRONGMAN (1955), AVENGER (1955), MAJOR INAPAK (1951), GHOST RIDER (1950) No notice of renewal.
Novelty (Funnies, Inc)
TARGET COMICS (1940), BLUE BOLT (1941), FOUR MOST (1942) registered but no notice of renewal.
Prize (Feature Publications)
PRIZE COMICS (1940) vol 1 #1, 10, and 12 registered. No card info for 2-9 or #11. Cards could be lost as one card with copyright information is a photostat of microfiche record or could be not registered. No notice of renewals.
Quality (Comic Favorites, Inc; Comic Magazines, Inc; Arnold Magazines)
FEATURE COMICS (1939), FEATURE FUNNIES (1941), CRACK COMICS (1940), DOLL MAN QUARTERLY (1941), HIT COMICS (1940).
In 1956, Quality Comics ceased publication and sold various titles to National Publications (DC). DC took over publishing of various titles such as Blackhawk and Plastic Man. In 1973, DC introduced various characters from Quality (Doll Man, Phantom Lady, the Ray, the Human Bomb, Uncle Sam, and the Black Condor as the Freedom Fighters in the pages of the Justice League. Since then, several stories and rumors have circulated concerning DC's purchase of said characters and their status while DC has been aggressive about protecting their "rights".
The one version of the story floated around is that the comics were copyrighted by Busy Arnold himself and not the company and thus could only be renewed by his widow, that what was sold to DC were just the titles being published at the time and not the copyrights which didn't really belong to the company anyway and that the characters passed into public domain.
As it turns out there are elements of truth and falseness to the stories. Arnold DID NOT copyright any of the titles I researched under his own name but mostly under Comic Favorites and Comic Magazines. There are also gaps in the copyright records of the titles indicating that some titles did not get registered such as DOLL MAN QUARTERLY #2 which has a note of "No reply to office letters of Feb. 17 and March 17, 1942". A gap in publishing of DOLL MAN occurs between issues 7 (1943) and 8 (1946) and no record of the original copyright registration is found.
According to the people at the Library of Congress, when a publisher buys out another publisher, the common practice is to buy only the titles (trademarks) and not the copyrights. Research bears this out as there is no record of a transfer of copyrights from Quality to National (DC). There is record of transfer of all copyrights from Leading to National when they bought out their partner Gaines just as there is a record of transfer from Arnold himself to Columbia Pictures of the Blackhawk character for the movie serial.
None of the titles of the 1940s that I researched showed renewal dates. Until we get to the 1950s books that would have been renewed in the 1970s. And, there it gets odd. The early 1950s issues of PLASTIC MAN and BLACKHAWK are renewed by Clare C. Arnold d.b.a. Comics Magazines up to the point the titles were taken over by DC. However DOLL MAN QUARTERLY #33 (1951) - 45 (1953) are renewed by DC even though it was not a title that was ever published by DC Comics and that there is NO RECORD OF TRANSFER OF COPYRIGHTS and the fact that the title continued to issue 47. If the issue 45 cutoff is not in error, then Doll Girl squeaks by as being appearing in a few issues that are public domain, otherwise she IS owned by DC, debuting in issue 37. This is interesting in that it would make her one of the few Quality characters that DC did have almost complete rights to and she was revealed to have died some time before the debut of the Freedom Fighters as back story.
CAPTAIN FLASH (1954/55) No notice of renewal
Street & Smith
RED DRAGON COMICS (1943), SUPER MAGICIAN COMICS (1941), SUPER MAGIC COMICS (1941) Registered AND renewed. Street & Smith proved to be on top of things and renewed all the properties that I checked. They also copyrighted the scripts to their radio shows, the only way at the time to afford any type of protection to radio broadcasts.
O.K. COMICS (1940), SPARKMAN (1945) No notice of registration.
SPARKLER COMICS registered. I don't have notes concerning renewals with this title which featured the debut and original stories of the hero Sparkman that were reprinted in his solo title.