Friday, June 5, 2009

The "Rights" Thing

I started writing comic book stories in the days when you signed away all rights to your creation by endorsing the check that the company paid you with. That particular ploy, made most famous by the story of how Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster sold their rights to Superman for the $130 they were paid for their first story, was eliminated in the mid-70s. Since that time, comics writers and artists have been given contracts, spelling out that we were creating a work-for-hire and defining what, if any, reprint fees or royalties we would receive if the company used the work for anything beyond its first publication. At the time, very few comic book stories were reprinted, but if they ever were, we would get "extra" money for our work.

The first story of mine that was reprinted and, in fact, the only one for quite a few years, was "Bat-Mite's New York Adventure." It was a six-page story in which the magical imp shows up at the DC offices and recruits a team to create a story about him to appear in the comics. I wrote the script one night in twenty minutes and the next day I gave it to Al Milgrom, the editor of Batman Family. "Read this," I said. "If you like it, buy it. Otherwise, you can throw it away." Obviously, he liked it. The story was included in one of DC's first hardcover collections, The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told, and I have earned much more in reprint fees than I got for the original script. (Just last month, decades after it appeared, I got another 42c!)

About a year and half ago, I received a letter from the DC legal department, advising me that another of my stories was going to be included in a trade paperback collection. The letter went on to explain how DC had been offering creators the option of receiving the reprint fee guaranteed in the contract they'd originally signed or a portion of the "royalty pool." My share would be based on the sales of the book and the percentage of pages my story represented.
Further, the letter offered me the chance to choose the royalty pool for all future reprints of my work because DC was planning to do away with sending these letters. (I presumed they had been giving people the option for quite awhile; I did not know for sure because I hadn't had any other stories reprinted.) If I was not interested, I did not have to sign the form nor return it.

Well, I decided that signing away my guaranteed reprint fees on everything I wrote for a percentage of a pool determined by DC probably wasn't in my best interests, so I did not return the form. A few weeks later, I got a phone call from someone in the DC legal department "just checking" to make sure I had received the letter and to see if I had any questions. I told her that I had no questions and that I would not be signing it.

Some weeks after that I got another call, this time from someone further up the chain of command, reminding me that I hadn't returned the form. I told him that I had no intention of doing so. I pointed out that if I did sign it, I gave DC permission to take 500 pages of stories I wrote, put them together in one of their Showcase volumes, and sell it for $16. Instead of paying the thousands of dollars in reprint fees I would be owed under the contracts, I would receive a percentage of a percentage of the allocated to the royalty pool and I somehow doubted it would be more. I asked him, "Doesn't this strike you as a bit reminiscent of Siegel and Shuster?" He replied that a number of other creators had chosen to sign it and that they were happy.
I told him that I had no intention of signing away these rights to everything I'd written. "If there is some collection of my stories that you want to do, I'd be willing to negotiate, but I'm not about to sign a blank check."

Needless to say, the only stories of mine that have been reprinted since then are a handful that were done during the "endorse the check, sign away your rights" era. A Showcase volume of Secret Society of Super-Villains, which would have included half a dozen of my stories, was announced, solicited, and then dropped from the schedule. A few other volumes that were to feature material from the same years were also cancelled. They were replaced with books reprinting stories originally published in the pre-contract era.

I suspect that I was not the only one who did not think signing away all the reprint fees was such a good idea, no matter what the DC legal eagle said.


  1. Stick to your guns Bob! I would love to see your work again - but in the vast majority of cases, I'll just go get the comic from my collection and reread it.

    They're trying to "Siegel and Shuster" creators again... I think they have to do it like a jackal returns to its regurgitation... and you shouldn't let them take advantage of you! I hope that all of DC's other creators - except for "those happy about it" - do the same thing.

    Comic books are a crappy business right now anyhow - or so I see it from the consumer side - and screwing over the creators will NOT make a better product, nor enhance the buying public.

    Don't let 'em get you, man. When they want what you've got, they'll talk REAL money. Good luck!

    I remain,
    Eric L. Sofer
    The Silver Age Fogey

  2. Bob, over on Gormuu's DC Archives message board, we've been discussing the "announced but never shipped" Showcase volumes off-and-on, so when I ran across this item here, I posted some information from it to that blog (trying to stay neutral on my opinions on the matter; as I have the original books regardless). It has produced some discussion; should you like to follow it, here's a link:

  3. Allen, I checked out the comments at the site and would appreciate if you would add the following, since I don't think everyone posting there understood the full story.
    I'd like to clarify a few things, if I may.
    The letter I received concerned a "World of Krypton" story that I had written, but offered me the "one-time opportunity" to sign up for the reprint pool for this story AND for all future reprints of my work done between 1976 and 1998.
    I never received any communication from DC regarding the Secret Society of Super-Villains SHOWCASE volume; the book was announced, scheduled, and then canceled (along with the Atomic Knights/Hercules volume and one or two others). Had someone from DC contacted me about the SSoSV stories and that volume specifically, I would have agreed to the royalty pool plan...for that material.
    I'm well aware that there is no groundswell movement to have my work reprinted, but if someone at DC feels that there is a market for it, I (and the artists who worked on it) certainly deserve the right to try and negotiate a better deal.
    The letter contained no set formula for what the pool would be for other reprints, just an example of what it would be for the Krypton book. Establishing the percentages on future reprints would be determined by DC.
    Finally, to the person who suggested that I need to get over myself... I compared the situation, in which Siegel and Shuster signed the check for their first story and at the same time gave up the rights to Superman, to this one, in which I was asked to sign a letter concerning a single reprinted story and at the same time give up the royalty rights to virtually everything else I have written. Are you saying that Siegel and Shuster's rights are more important than those of other writers and artists? That they shouldn't have gotten screwed, but it's okay if it happens to people whose work isn't as important to the industry?

  4. Thanks for the additional information, Bob! It has been added to that topic. It's odd that DC is scheduling these without getting the agreements first, and not following through.

    Personally, I think they should do a trade paperback of your Calculator stories.

  5. I'm glad creators are standing up for their rights. Big business has always thrived on the labor of artists and creative people and then had the illusion that it was the company, and not the creator, responsible for the success. You join the ranks of Neal Adams, Dave Sim, and others who fight for creators' rights. Bravo, indeed.

  6. I'd totally buy a TPB of the Calculator stories. The first I ever saw about that was in his original Who's Who writeup as a wee lad, and it's intrigued me ever since.

    I still really want that SSoSV collection. I got so excited when it was announced. Le sigh.

  7. I'm guessing the original contracts didn't include digital rights. In that case, we probably won't see those stories reprinted in anything but a digital form where they'll most likely be able to reprint them for free. I doubt any of the writers/artists from that time frame have the time/money required to defeat the huge Warner legal machine.

    It's sad, because I really wanted a SSoSV collection. I have the originals and photo copies of the 2 non-published issues, but a collected edition would be nice.