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Fischer: Fables for free?

By Travis Fischer,

Every copyright attorney on the planet spontaneously got a headache last Thursday when comic book writer Bill Willingham unexpectedly announced that he was offering “Fables,” his most prolific original work, into the public domain.

“Fables,” as one might assume from the name, is about a community of characters from all of our beloved fairy tales who have fled their story world homelands and created a neighborhood for themselves in New York City where they try to pass as mundane humans. Snow White is the deputy mayor, the Big Bad Wolf is the sheriff, and together they try to keep a bunch of semi-immortal and often magically inclined misfits from killing each other and/or exposing their existence to the world.

Fischer: Fables for free?
Travis Fischer

According to Willingham, his relationship with publisher DC Comics has degraded so much over the years that, when faced with the prospect of a long legal battle to resolve their many contract disputes, he decided to effectively flip the table.

He can’t come to an agreement with DC Comics that would allow him to write more “Fables” content, but he can give up his copyright completely so that anybody else can.


Willingham owns, at least in part, the copyright of “Fables.” His name is listed on the copyright registry as the author of the text of the comic book series, while DC Comics is listed as the author of the artwork.

It’s safe to say that Willingham’s declaration doesn’t allow anybody to just start reprinting and distributing the various “Fables” comics that have been published over the years. Doing so would quickly invoke the wrath of DC’s attorneys.

That, however, seems to be about the only thing that’s clear about the situation.

The art is off limits, but are the characters? Are their depictions?

Can I write, and sell, a story about Bigby Wolf and how distinct does my Bigby need to be from DC’s Bigby to avoid running afoul of whatever copyright they have?

A similar situation impacted some Sherlock Holmes adaptations not long ago. While most of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories were in the public domain, the copyright to some of his later books remained under the control of Doyle’s estate and they were … enthusiastic … about making sure adaptations of the character didn’t draw from the stories they retained the rights to.

For “Fables,” this leaves a big question mark about what is or isn’t off-limits?

Adding an extra layer of confusion to the matter is the fact that “Fables” itself is already heavily dependent on characters that are already in the public domain to begin with.

Sticking a bunch of fairy tale characters into the contemporary world is a cool idea, but it’s hardly unique to “Fables.” Disney’s “Once Upon A Time” ran for seven seasons on a similar premise. (Around the same time that a “Fables” television show was starting to get shopped around, if you believe in coincidences.)

In that sense, Willingham entering “Fables” into the public domain doesn’t really mean much. Anybody could already write a story about Aladdin and Robin Hood competing to steal the Mona Lisa in modern day France.

Untangling what copyrights DC maintains, what copyrights Willingham has given up, and what copyrights are already in the public domain is going to be a monumental challenge for DC’s attorneys to figure out in the event that anybody takes up Willingham on his offer to make more “Fables.”

DC, of course, issued a statement declaring that they own the copyright to “Fables” and will do what they deem necessary to protect that copyright.

Which really seems to be the greater point of Willingham’s action. Rather than spend the rest of his life stuck in a legal quagmire of DC’s making, he’s decided to leave the company stuck in a quagmire of its own.

— Travis Fischer is a news writer for the Charles City Press and notes that, of the two major comic book publishers in the industry, DC Comics has the better reputation than Marvel when it comes to respecting creator rights. Think about that.

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