Public Domain vs. Corporate Owned

I’ve been mulling over this post for some time now.  It all started with Chris Roberson speaking publicly against DC, saying he wouldn’t be doing any work for the company after his story arc in Fairest, because of his feelings about Before Watchmen.  DC said, no, you’re done doing any work for us now.  Chris felt that DC was mistreating creators, namely Alan Moore, by publishing Before Watchmen without his consent.  Shortly after this, I started reading the trade of his second Fables tie-in, Cinderella mini-series.  Minor spoiler alert, the main villain is Dorthy Gale, who is not a murderous mercenary.  And my first thought was, “I wonder if L. Frank Baum would have been happy with the main character of The Wizard of Oz being turned into a mercenary.”

Let’s get one thing straight here.  Books are made and sold to make money.  Don’t talk to me about things being created for the sole purpose of the creator wanting to create.  If that were the case, comics would be free, or at least sold to shops for only the cost of materials and shipping.  So, let’s get that out of the way.  Writers write because it is their job to.  Artists draw because it is their job to.  That’s not to say that they don’t enjoy doing it, but simply it is how they make money.  They wouldn’t take on a project that didn’t at least have the potential to make money, regardless of how much they may like what they’re working on.  Just like you wouldn’t volunteer at your job when you need money to survive.  So, with that in mind, stuff like Fables, Watchmen, Superman, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is created and published to make money.

Now, I’ve never read Moore’s Watchmen contract.  I just don’t care what’s in it.  He’s the one that agreed to it, not me.  I’m certain that had he been able to see into the future, and know how big Watchmen would become, then yes, he probably would have demanded a better contract.  But that’s life.  If I sell something to someone, and then find out years later that it is worth much more than I got for it, I’m just out of luck.

But, I’m digressing from the point of this entry. In the short of it, you use what’s at your disposal in order to make money.  A company like DC owns characters, like the Watchmen characters, and is in their right to use them.  A common writer has characters that they create or are in the public domain at their disposal.  So, DC is using the Watchmen characters because they can, and someone like Chris Roberson can use characters in the public domain because he can.

But now for my main question.  How can Chris Roberson take a character like Dorothy Gale, make her a mercenary, and not think twice about it?  How is that not being disrespectful to the creator?  Do you think Baum would have been okay with this character, who may have been named after his niece that died in infancy, being turned into a murderer?  This is the thing that confounds me, and I’ve seen it all over comment threads.  People are upset that DC is “ruining the Watchmen characters.”  “But Alan Moore had no problem changing public domain characters or Swamp Thing.”  “Well, that’s different because Moore should own the Watchmen characters.”  “But he doesn’t, DC does.”  You get the idea.

So, what makes changing the characterization of a public domain character okay?  I’m not saying I have a problem with it, but you never hear about how the creators are being disrespected by it.  Is it that the creator is most likely dead, and therefore can’t speak up about it?  Is it because there are already so many adaptations around, people aren’t actually familiar with the actual source material?  Is it just simply that the character is in the public domain, so the creator wouldn’t receive anything for it anyways?

The point I’m not making is that for me, I don’t make the distinction.  I believe that a person, or company, should use whatever is at their disposal to be as successful as they can be.  For DC, if that means using the Watchmen characters because you can, then use them.  For Chris, if that means dramatically changing a a public domain character for your story, then do that.  I do not see a difference between the two. Legally, you have the right to.  Is this the moral thing to do?  I don’t know.  But I don’t see a difference.  They are either both morally okay, or not morally okay.  It’s not the public’s place to try to re-negotiate past contracts for people.

But in closing, let’s do examine the artistic merits.  Which one do you think stays truer to the creator’s artistic vision:  filling in what was a loosely told back story or completely changing everything about the character?

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4 comments

  1. I really like this post. It is a really interesting topic and I don’t really feel there is a right or wrong answer. I know I have in the past defended Alan Moore and blamed DC for “ruining his characters” but as a fan of Fables I would probably take the opposite stance on the public domain characters. as much as I hate to admit I see myself, and other fans, using this argument in whichever way it best suits me. For example I defend Fables because I think it is a good book, I hated League of Extraordinary Gentlemen because it was an awful movie. Does that mean it is only morally ok if the end result is good? because I am not sure I am ok with that yet I see myself doing this all the time….

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    1. The funniest thing in all of this is one dude doesn’t want people to mess with Alan Moore’s characters and at the same time the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen does the same thing to old literary characters and the comic was written by Alan Moore.

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  2. I disagree on this on the basis of principles; I think we do sometimes need to look at what “feels” or “seems” right and do justice to the situation. DC should hand control of Watchmen to Alan Moore, even if they don’t hand him the money. It is the proper thing to do to do justice to the art, which was art that changed the world and transcended the genre. Not all situations are equal; DC doesn’t *have* to do this, but most fans and other onlookers agree it is right, and they should pay attention to that if they value conscience and integrity. Which many corporations do not.

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    1. You hold Watchmen in much higher regard than I do. But that’s irrelevant. I try to look at things as black and white as I can. Because when you start adding grey areas, on a situation by situation basis, you allow room for biases. As a property, DC owns Watchmen under an agreement that Moore accepted. Yes, Watchmen is more valuable today than it was then. And I thought about this. I feel dirty for siding with DC, but I do. If I bought a property from someone for say $100, and we both found out later that it was actually worth $1000, I’m not giving it back. And I don’t think I’m wrong. When the property was sold, it was done so under a deal we both agreed to. So, I would feel like a hypocrite if I called on DC to do something that I myself would not do.

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