Updated: October 7, 2021
Halloween is here again, and with it comes a fresh set of chilling tales of copyright infringement and gray areas – tales scary enough to make any creator’s hair stand on end! The Copyright Alliance would like to present to you five tales of copyright woes every author should know.
1. Marion Zimmer Bradley – The Contraband Incident
Marion Zimmer Bradley is arguably the central figure in the copyright controversy over fanfiction. Bradley, who was the author of fantasy fiction novels, The Mists of Avalon and the Darkover series, serves as a cautionary tale for commercial writers and fanfiction authors alike. In the 1960’s, Bradley heavily encouraged fanfiction and actively engaged with her fans who, in turn, submitted their works to her for approval. She helped them edit and publish their works in “fanzines” and eventually published 12 anthologies of fan-written stories through fantasy book publisher DAW Books. From the 1970’s to the early 1990’s, Bradley cultivated a sizable universe of fans who astonishingly collaborated harmoniously with her for over two decades. Unfortunately, not all good things are made to last. In 1992, Bradley’s fantasy utopia came crashing down on her. A fan named Jean Lamb wrote a novel titled Masks, using one of Bradley’s characters. Bradley read the novel and gave her feedback as was customary amongst her fan universe. There was some apparent overlap between the themes and characters in Masks and Bradley’s forthcoming Darkover novel, Contraband. There are two sides to every story, so in one version of events the overlap was entirely coincidental, and Bradley had already included those elements in her (yet to be published) work. In the other version, Bradley copied those elements without permission after offering Lamb a few hundred dollars. In that version of events, Lamb attempted to negotiation a better deal, but Bradley shut her down. Whatever the case, once Contraband was announced, Lamb sued Bradley claiming she had stolen her works. This caused Bradley’s publisher to drop her contract and terminate the publication of Contraband. In response, Bradley shut down her fanfiction universe and ceased publishing the fanfiction works of her fans. This move would eventually scare both commercial and fanfiction writers for years to come.
2. Reddit’s No Sleep Protest
It’s easy to think of copyright protection as being reserved for structured artforms conveyed through conventional mediums. However, technology has changed the landscape of copyright fixation, creating many gray areas and forcing copyright to adapt along the way. In 2020, millions of users on the online community forum Reddit went dark in protest of unchecked copyright infringement of the Reddit’s subreddit ‘NoSleep’. NoSleep is one of Reddit’s most famous forums, where users share their scariest most realistic stories. The forum gained so much popularity that some of the stories were being used by third parties for commercial purposes, without permission . As a result, the subreddit was closed to users in order to raise awareness of the problem and later re-opened on March 2, 2020 with an invitation only policy. However, this wasn’t the first time that users of the forum had tried to fight against copyright infringement. A few years ago, users created a writer’s guild called “No Sleep Writers Guild,” which aimed to make it easier for authors to license and sell their stories as well as protect their rights.
3. Tall Dark and Faceless?
“Beware, the Slender Man!” You may have heard this phrase a couple times, or maybe you’ve watched the eponymously titled documentary on HBO. Regardless of how you came across it, Slender Man has lived on the internet for many years, creeping though obscure horror forums and inspiring people to commit heinous crimes. He is a tall, faceless ghostlike man, who can be seen looming over two schoolgirls in pictures across the internet. Slender Man was created in 2009 by Eric Knudsen, who posted a ghost story on an internet forum called Something Awful’. The picture he included with his story gradually became an urban legend and eventually migrated to other websites across the internet. Naturally, Sony saw an opportunity to make a blockbuster movie out of it and bought the rights from Knudsen. In 2016, Sony announced they would be bringing Slender Man to life in the movie titled Slender Man. This story would have been great if this was the happy ending to Slender Man’s shadowy existence in the corners of the internet. However, Sony discovered that it had a potential copyright infringer: independent production company Phame Factory. The indie company was also planning on releasing a movie called Flay featuring a similar character to Slender Man. In an attempt to protect its rights, Sony served Flay with cease-and-desist orders, which prompted Phame to countersue and claim that its promotional content did not infringe on Sony’s copyright. The parties settled and Phame agreed to include a disclaimer on advertising materials, trailers and the movie itself. The Flay film released in 2019 on digital platforms, while Sony’s Slender Man movie released in 2018 so apparently there is room for more than one Slender Man in the world of entertainment.
4. Stephen King – Misery
Stephen King is truly the “king” of horror literature. It’s hard to unsee the famous scene in the movie Misery, where the psychotic nurse Annie Wilkes bludgeons her captive’s feet until he writes another novel. However, before this gory tale became a blockbuster, Misery was a best-selling horror novel by Stephen King (as most of King’s novels are). One of the most chilling things about the storyline was how relatable it was -who hasn’t been disappointed with the way a story ends? (*cough cough* final season of Game of Thrones) However, the reason why the novel may have been so relatable is because it was allegedly based on an actual woman. In 1991, a freelance writer named Anne Hiltner brought a $500 million lawsuit against Stephen King for copyright infringement and a host of other allegations. Hiltner claimed that the deranged nurse, Annie Wilkes, was inspired by her. Hiltner also alleged that King and his distributors had stolen content from her private diaries to create another character, Sally Druse, featured in King’s TV miniseries The Journals of Eleanor Druse: The Kingdome Hospital Incident. The lawsuit was eventually dismissed as baseless; however, this suit was only one of a series of claims Annie Hitlner had made against King over the years. In the past, Hiltner had accused King of flying over her house with listening devices to spy on her, as well as breaking into her house to steal manuscripts to write his book. None of the allegations were ever found to have any substance, but it’s fair to say that Stephen King eventually became the star of his very own horror novel.
5. Clive Barker – Hellraiser
Hi there, and welcome to the complicated world of copyright duration and termination! Depending on when a work was created, authors may reclaim their copyright from whomever they assigned the rights to by terminating those rights. In 1987, New World Pictures introduced the world to Hellraiser, a horror movie about a family who invites hell into their lives by opening a puzzle box (Talk about family game night from hell?! Am I right?). The movie is based on Clive Barker’s horror novel, The Hellbound Heart, which he adapted into Hellraiser. However, Barker signed over the rights to his works to his holding company, Rivdel, which then signed it over to New World Pictures. After numerous rights transfers and deals, the rights ended up in Park Avenue Entertainment’s possession. Barker eventually decided, after 34 years and an extensive Hellraiser franchise, that he would like his rights back. Barker served Park Avenue Entertainment and Lawrence Kuppin, Park Avenue’s owner, a termination notice in compliance with the Copyright Act’s stipulations. However, the defendants claimed that Barker’s 1986 agreement with his company Rivdel was to be governed by U.K. contract law. Barker ultimately settled with Park Avenue and Kuppin in December 2020 and reclaimed his copyright in Hellraiser. However, Barker only reclaimed his copyright in the United States. If he wants to embark on a global project, he will have to make deals with each international rights holder. Likewise, Barker’s reclaimed right only applies to his existing work and not the multitude of sequels and offshoots that have sprung up. This case is in good company – many other authors of 70’s and 80’s horror franchises are trying to reclaim their rights as well. In fact, the same lawyer litigating Barker’s lawsuit is also working on a similar lawsuit for Friday the 13th screenwriter, Victor Miller. The more complicated part of this entire ordeal is that new movies based on the Hellraiser franchise are scheduled to be released in the near future; David Bruckner is developing a new adaptation of Hellraiser for Spyglass Media, and HBO announced in April 2020 that they will be developing a Hellraiser TV series.
All in all, it’s hard to deny the power of a good horror story. Whether you’re creeping through the internet looking for Slender Man or perusing the pages of Stephen King’s latest novel, a good horror story will have you hooked. Just always remember to respect the author whose scary mind made it possible! Have a great Halloween!