Lovecraft Copyrights

The Grim Blogger has been talking about the HPL copyrights.  Seeing as I was a guest speaker on a panel on the topic – sort of – I’ll see what I can add.

One of the worst-kept secrets of Lovecraft fandom, aside from that whole Levenda bit, is that Lovecraft’s fiction is most likely in the public domain.  Some of it was published without a copyright notice, and the rest of it wasn’t renewed at the appropriate time by anyone who can be discovered.  I don’t mean to say that this is completely resolved, mind you.  Still, the claims I’ve heard that HPL’s fiction is indeed owned by someone usually hinge on some dubious point, such as the applicability of Latin American copyright laws to online documents or how Weird Tales sold the stories to Derleth and then was allowed to renew them via some process of which the Copyright Office itself knows nothing.

That doesn’t mean claimants don’t exist.  One of these is Arkham House, the publisher started by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei that’s been published Lovecraft for decades.  The other is Robert C. Harrall, a distant relative of Lovecraft who runs Lovecraft Properties.  It’s unclear as to whether either of them has any more than moral standing, but most people starting any manner of HPL adaptation generally try to get in good with one or the other, just in case.

(I should add that, last I checked, Lovecraft actually had a direct descendant via his wife Sonia Greene’s previous marriage.  I don’t think that person really cares, though.)

One element of the Grim One’s post I wanted to clarify:

Obviously, the editions still put out by Arkham House, alongside Penguin, Del Rey, and other major publishers means some sort of copyrights for HPL’s printed material continue to operate enough to allow these bookmongers to get a profit.

This actually has very little to do with copyright, from what I’ve seen.  After all, Creation Press issued its Crawling Chaos collection under English copyright law and seems to have gotten away with it, and Penguin regularly releases public domain works and makes a good business off of them.

Simply put, a big publisher can make money off public domain material simply by sheer volume and visibility.  Thus, Penguin and Del Rey can do so because they can put copies of their books prominently in every Barnes and Noble or Borders across the country.  As for Arkham House – hmm.  I’d say Arkham House makes money by cornering the collector’s market for fine hardbacks, but I’m really not sure how they make money.  (If you’re curious about what I mean, try ordering an Arkham House book at your local bookstore.  I’ve been waiting three months for my Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith, and the shop owner expressed my chances of receiving it in tones normally reserved for saying pleasantries about the deceased.)

This accounts for why exactly the HPL copyright question is unlikely to be resolved for some time to come.  It’s not in the best interests of any of these publishers to raise the issue, because they’ll make pretty much the same amount of money either way.  It’s not in the best interests of the rights owners to go to court, because they can only lose.  Nobody else really has the money or time to go through with it, and the benefits of such a lawsuit are likely to accrue to people who didn’t actually file it.  Adding to this the current trend of extending copyright terms again and again, we’ll not likely see HPL be free and clear in the public domain for some time to come.

Published in: on October 17, 2007 at 10:28 pm  Comments (5)  

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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Thanks for clarifying, Dan. I always wondered what, if any, legalities or rights the big publishers were operating off of. It makes more sense, what you say about profiting from sheer volume and book placement. By the way, do you know of any solid sources like articles or anything that discuss this issue? Most of my perusing was confined to Joshi’s HPL biography and some posts on alt.cthulhu that gave a smattering of opinions based on specific copyrights, or lack thereof.

  2. Hello, Grim Blogger,

    Have you read this article by Chris J. Karr? It gave me much insight into Lovecraft copyrights. Especially I am astonished to know that Forrest D. Hartmann, Arkham House’s attorney, claimed Lovecraft’s works are in public domain. In ARKHAM’S MASTERS OF HORROR, Peter Ruber said that Hartmann plotted to sell Arkham House to a large publisher, so it may be no wonder he was no longer concerned fot Arkham House’s profit.

    While many people believe that HPL’s works are in public domain, as Harms pointed out, companies tend to have friendly relations with Arkham House or Robert C. Harrall. For example, Scott Connors said that Guillermo del Toro’s people paid money to Arkham House in order to film “At the Mountains of Madness”.

  3. I know there’s discussion of the copyright issue in the back of Fedogan & Bremer’s _Don’t Dream_ (a collection of Donald Wandrei’s science fiction) by D.H. Olson.

  4. […] 18th, 2007 at 8:26 pm (Cthulhu, Lovecraft) In the comments to the last post, Mr. Takeoka has mentioned this article by Chris Karr that appears to have been posted last week on […]

  5. […] about then.  Are you turning out a screenplay based on a Lovecraft story?  Even though HPL is likely public domain, you might want to get in touch with one of the Lovecraft estates – yes, there are more than one.  […]

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