Equity aids the vigilant
My last two posts have explored the question of artists taking elements of DC comics Batman character and using it in their own art. The issue was originally posed to me by a comic artist at a convention who wanted to know if DC could come down on him for incorporating DC characters into his work. Anyone who has ever attended a comic convention knows that the practice is common. Artists unaffiliated with the copyright holder will sell their “fanart” creations within full sight of the rights holders, sometimes even a few booths down. My first pass at explaining how a “fan-artist” could defend themselves was to explore fair use in the copyright realm. Fair use is a close call, and courts could go either way, so my main advice to artists was to keep it small. I wanted to explore one other theory that could protect artists: by doing nothing with the full knowledge of what artists are doing, DC triggers the ancient-yet-still-good doctrines of laches and equitable estoppel.
Laches acts to prevent a rights holder from bringing a claim if they have delayed for an unreasonable period of time and the delay makes it hard (or impossible) for the second person to defend themselves or change their ways. The theory behind laches is good old-fashioned unfairness and common sense.
About ten years ago one of the original screenwriters for the James Bond film series brought a suit against the movie company producing Bond claiming that he had created the film persona for Bond and that every Bond movie infringed his copyright. Like my exploration of Batman, the issue was over the copyright of the character, rather than a specific story. Kevin McClory had collaborated with Bond novelist Ian Fleming to create the script for Thunderball. McClory claimed the Bond character of his script was a new creation from the books and that he was therefore the author of “Bond” in film.
The court never reached the question of whether or not McClory’s Bond had been infringed, he had simply waited too long. Laches asks three questions: did you delay? did you have a good reason to delay? did your delay make it harder on the person you’re going after. There are no hard rules to laches, no set time timetables, it’s up to the court’s common sense and past precedent. In McClory’s case, he had known about each Bond film for the past 30 years and said nothing. Over the course of time, key witnesses (like novelist Ian Flemming and screenwriter Richard Maibaum) had died and could not be called on to testify. Additionally, the movie studios producing Bond films had invested one billion dollars in creating and promoting the Bond franchise.
McClory had asked the court to give him some of the money from previous Bond film and prevent any more films from being made without his permission. The court denied both. Ordinarily, laches doesn’t speak into the future, but it did that time.
Looking at comic fanart and laches, it is possible to see a court barring DC from coming after someone for drawing their own Batman. The analysis would turn on the specific facts of that artist. Imagine an artist who had worked his or her own table at the last ten San Diego comic cons, displaying, drawing, and selling their own Batman at each. A court could find that since DC representatives were also in attendance, and said nothing, they had unreasonable delayed bringing suit against the artist. The artist would then have to show that the delay had either cost them witnesses or caused them to create a business model dependant on the sale of Batman drawings. If one of those could be met, Laches would trigger and DC could not collect money from the artist. DC may still be able to prevent the artist from ever drawing Batman again, however. Even though the court in the Bond case extended laches protection into the future, they had specific reasons on those facts which would not be present in all cases (namely, the death of Flemming and Maibaum made it impossible to sort out who had truly “invented” Bond).
Equitable estoppel prevents a rights holder who has indicated to another that certain behavior is okay from then coming back and suing after the second person has invested time/money/etc. Trivia: estoppel is a legal term meaning “to prevent or stop.” I don’t know why they can’t just say “stop.” I wondered the same thing in law school😛
Also about ten years ago, Dan DeCarlo, creator of Josie and the Pussycats, sued Archie Comics, claiming that they had stolen control of Josie (the character) from him. Equitable estoppel asks four questions: did the rights holder know of the second person’s use? did the rights holder’s action or inaction indicate to second person that use was okay? was the second person ignorant of rights holder’s objections? did second person suffer financial harm in reliance on rights holder’s action or inaction?
For Josie, the analysis was: yes, DeCarlo knew of Archie Comics use of “his” characters in continuing comics, merchandising, and television shows. Yes, his inaction signaled to Archie Comics that it was okay for them to do so. Yes, Archie Comics was unaware that DeCarlo still considered the characters his. And yes, Archie Comics had relied on DeCarlo’s inaction in their marketing of the Josie brand.
Turning again to comics and fanart: Yes, DC knows of many artists who regularly draw Batman and other characters without paying fees or giving credit to DC. Yes, DC’s inaction has created an environment where people actually think it’s okay. Maybe, depending on the facts, the artist is unaware that DC disapproves of the fanart. And yes, many artists rely on DC’s inaction in forming their business model to draw and sell Batman sketches. Specific facts in a given case could change the analysis.
DC’s lack of response to unaffiliated artists may have created protection for those artists they would not otherwise have had. Their conduct, and the cases I’ve noted, also serves as a warning to up-and-coming artists. Both McClory and DeCarlo were freelance artists who contributed to the creation of what became a successful franchise. Neither enjoyed the rewards of that success because they waited too long. Most likely, the release of the Bond DVDs and the release of the Josie movie inspired the men to act. They sensed new money from their old ideas, and sought to get in on the pie. This is a cautionary tale to all other freelancers out there. Be vigilant about what you create. Even for a property you’ve licensed or contributed a portion to, keep on top of the uses. If you don’t like what’s happening, speak up, send emails, get a lawyer to write a cease and desist letter. Don’t wait for it to make money. You don’t have to sue to keep your rights alive, but you do have to demonstrate vigilance.
Last thought. Both DeCarlo and McClory were co-authors in the respective franchises. Co-authorship is the starting point for nearly all forms of copyright disputes. My next post will focus directly on co-authorship and what the individual artists can do to protect themselves.