Bill Willingham’s plan to put his comic book series “Fables” in the public domain gets murky

Last week I wrote an item about comic book writer Bill Willingham’s announcement that he has put Fables, the comic book series about fairy tale characters that he created and is published by DC Comics, in the public domain. He claimed to be the undisputed owner of the copyright, but said that DC Comics was grabbing rights he didn’t think they were entitled to. So instead of entering into a legal battle with them, he was giving the property’s characters and the right to create derivative works to the public.

Willingham later clarified on Twxttxr that he was putting right to create new media based on his Fables in the public domain, not existing Fables stories/comics that DC Comics has already published.

DC Comics wrote me an email with their response to Willingham’s announcement, which was published in various places:

DC’s statement in response to: https://boingboing.net/2023/09/15/bill-willingham-puts-his-entire-fables-comic-book-property-into-public-domain.html

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.

So DC Comics claims they own the copyright on the “storylines, characters, and elements” of Fables, and so Willingham can’t give them away.

Maybe Willingham isn’t going to avoid that legal battle with DC Comics after all.

Heidi MacDonald at The Beat pointed to this twxxt from Zach Rabiroff, which attaches three copyright filings he said (while emphasizing he’s not a lawyer) shows a transfer of copyright on Fables from DC Comics to Willingham. Another twxxtxr, Brendan P. McFeely, who claims he is an intellectual property lawyer, said the filings actually show a transfer of copyright from Willingham to DC.

Acclaimed comic book writer Neil Gaiman expressed support for Willingham’s announcement on BlueSky, but also said that, even assuming it is effective, it may not change much since DC Comics still owns the Fables trademark and logo.

I’m trying to figure out what this actually puts out there though. You can’t use any of the Fables logos or trademarks. All the characters are Public Domain to begin with.

So if you create a comic book (or TV show or movie, etc.) with Willingham’s characters/storylines and called it Fables, evoking the comic book series, DC Comics could claim trademark infringement. And the Fables characters are based on fairy tale and folklore characters, which are already in the public domain.

If I want to tell stories of Snow White or Sleeping Beauty I can already.

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