It depends on who you ask.
Willingham made headline news last Friday when he made the sudden announcement that Fables, the comic book series he created and has been writing for the last twenty years, was henceforth released to the public domain. Why would he do this? In his words via Substack, it’s a last-ditch, Hail Mary, self-inflicted gunshot after every other attempt to fight DC for control of his creation and lost payments has failed.
“When I first signed my creator-owned publishing contract with DC Comics, the company was run by honest men and women of integrity…Since then, over the span of twenty years or so, those people have left or been fired, to be replaced by a revolving door of strangers, of no measurable integrity, who now choose to interpret every facet of our contract in ways that only benefit DC Comics and its owner companies.” Willingham says he would sue if he could, but doesn’t have the strength or pile of cash to drag it out, and DC is aware.
One major point of contention seems to be royalties over The Wolf Among Us, the 2013 video game by Telltale that, for a lot of people, was their introduction to the world of Fables. Bill says he hasn’t seen a dime from that game and wants “50%.” A rebuilt Telltale has been working on a sequel to The Wolf Among Us for some time; it’s unknown if this drama will affect its completion.
But it all leads to this:
“The one thing in our contract the DC lawyers can’t contest, or reinterpret to their own benefit, is that I am the sole owner of the intellectual property. I can sell it or give it away to whomever I want. I chose to give it away to everyone.
As of now, 15 September 2023, the comic book property called Fables, including all related Fables spin-offs and characters, is now in the public domain. What was once wholly owned by Bill Willingham is now owned by everyone, for all time. It’s done, and as most experts will tell you, once done it cannot be undone. Take-backs are neither contemplated nor possible.”
Bill says that’s that. It didn’t take DC long to respond and say no, that’s not that. “The Fables comic books and graphic novels published by DC, and the storylines, characters, and elements therein, are owned by DC and protected under the copyright laws of the United States and throughout the world in accordance with applicable law and are not in the public domain. DC reserves all rights and will take such action as DC deems necessary or appropriate to protect its intellectual property rights.”
When pressed on it, Bill admitted he had the power to release the characters, but not the stories, meaning the scripts and art that DC paid for remain theirs. So running off to the printing press and reprinting bad scans of Fables issues for a quick buck is still illegal. But if Bill is right and DC is wrong, it might be possible now to write, draw and sell your own stories about Snow White, the Big Bad Wolf, Cinderella….wait a minute, these characters are public domain already!
Fables is, ironically, built on a foundation of stories that anyone can use and interpret. It’s not even the only comic book currently doing that. Prior to last Friday, you could write a novel about fairy tale characters escaping to the modern world and living in secret. You could certainly make a TV show with that premise without consulting Bill. Are things really that different now?
We’re not even sure Willingham’s claim is a legit one, as he’s the only one who’s said anything about it. This story is sure to develop further; updates to come.