Bill Willingham says ‘Fables’ is now in the public domain; DC says ‘Nope’

Willingham severs ties with the publisher with extreme prejudice.

Citing ongoing problems in working with DC Comics, Fables writer Bill Willingham has said he is releasing Fables into the public domain.

The quick version:

  • On Sept. 14, Willingham sent out on a press release on his Substack saying that as of Sept. 15, “the comic book property called Fables, including all related Fables spin-offs and characters, is now in the public domain.”
  • Willingham followed the next day with another post where he interviewed himself, citing problems he’s had with DC in recent years and saying “DC doesn’t seem to be capable of acting fairly and above-board.”
  • DC responded with their own statement, saying that they own Fables and that the company “reserves all rights and will take such action as DC deems necessary or appropriate to protect its intellectual property rights.”

So what’s this all about? Let’s break it down …

Let’s start at the beginning. Who is involved here?

The two parties involved are Bill Willingham and DC Comics. Willingham is a longtime comics writer (and sometimes artist; he drew images for TSR’s Dungeons & Dragons books back in the day) whose work you might know from Elementals, Proposition Player, Shadowpact and, of course, Fables, the long-running series published by Vertigo Comics.

Fables ran for 150 issues between 2002 and 2015, and then returned in 2022 with issue #151 for an additional 12-issue run under DC’s Black Label imprint. That run is not yet completed, with issue #160 due next month. There were also numerous specials and spinoffs over the years, including the long-running Jack of Fables series, a Batman crossover and a novel titled Peter and Max. And there’s a video game made by Telltale Games.

And why is Willingham doing this? What’s his beef with DC?

In his Substack newsletter, Willingham laid out his issues with his publisher. He starts by noting that when he “first signed my creator-owned publishing contract with DC Comics, the company was run by honest men and women of integrity.” DC is definitely a different place now than it was back in 2002. At the time, Fables was published by Vertigo and overseen by Shelly Bond and Karen Berger. Neither are with DC any longer, and Vertigo doesn’t even exist anymore — it was replaced by the Black Label imprint in 2018, which is a completely different animal than Vertigo was. Willingham said that when he agreed to bring Fables back for 12 issues, he was working with Dan Didio and Mark Doyle — both of whom are no longer with the publisher.

“At one time the Fables properties were in good hands, and now, by virtue of attrition and employee replacement, the Fables properties have fallen into bad hands,” Willingham said.

To get specific, Willingham said DC is supposed to “seek my opinion on artists for new stories, or for covers, or formats of new collections and such,” which he said they regularly don’t do. He also said that when he was signing the paperwork to bring back Fables, the lawyers from DC he worked with didn’t seem to understand that he owned Fables:

 More recently, during talks to try to work out our many differences, DC officers admitted that their interpretation of our publishing agreement, and the following media rights agreement, is that they could do whatever they wanted with the property. They could change stories or characters in any way they wanted. They had no obligation whatsoever to protect the integrity and value of the IP, either from themselves, or from third parties (Telltale Games, for instance) who want to radically alter the characters, settings, history and premises of the story (I’ve seen the script they tried to hide from me for a couple of years). Nor did they owe me any money for licensing the Fables rights to third parties, since such a license wasn’t anticipated in our original publishing agreement.

And lastly, he said they still owe him money. In his follow-up email, he said this amounts to about $30,000.

Wait, so let’s go back to the ownership point. Is Bill Willingham the sole owner of Fables?

That is the question. For most creator-owned comics work, the writer and the artist (or artists) are all typically referred to as the creators and would have an ownership stake. Willingham worked with a variety of artists over the course of Fables run, with Mark Buckingham and Steve Leialoha working on the most issues. But from what I can tell, in this case, the artists don’t have an ownership stake in the property.

So the question becomes, is Willingham the sole owner, or does DC have a stake in it? Willingham says no, but DC says yes. Here’s their statement, which ran on The Beat:

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.

It’s worth noting that the full contracts between DC and Willingham have not been released, so there are likely additional agreements in place that further complicate our understanding of the clear lines of ownership.

And if you look at the United States Copyright Office database, it has both Willingham and DC in its listing:

You can also click through to the copyright office’s listings for Willingham, and see his name attached to a lot of different Fables-related properties — and along with DC.

That’s the copyright office — if you go to the United States Patent and Trademark Office website, you’ll find all sorts of listings for various DC properties, from Batman to FanDome, but none for Fables or, for instance, Bigby Wolf. There are numerous trademarks for Cinderella, Snow White and other fairy tale characters for various products, but I couldn’t find any that related to the Fables comic series.

That’s an interesting point — can you trademark a centuries-old fairy tale character, or even own stories about characters that were already in the public domain?

Apparently you can trademark terms like “Cinderella” and “Snow White,” if the listings on the trademark office’s web page are any indication. But it’s not completely cut and dried, as you’ll see many entities have trademarked both terms as they relate to various items. I’m no lawyer, so if you’re looking to make an animated film called Snow White that features her and a bunch of dwarfs singing and dancing and eating apples, I’d suggest consulting with a lawyer before proceeding.

But Willingham and the artists he worked with took public domain characters and turned them into something different. So sure, you could always write your own Snow White story, but you couldn’t write your own Snow White + Bigby Wolf comic, starring the characters as seen in Fables, without permission. Whose permission you would have needed seems to be up for debate.

So what happens next?

That’s a great question. Willingham says anyone can create stories featuring the Fables characters now, but DC said they can’t. Unless one or the other relents, we probably won’t know from a legal standpoint if the characters are in the public domain until someone tries to publish their own stories, without DC’s permission, and DC sues them.

Although if Bill Willingham has given up ownership, is there anything in place stopping DC from continuing to tell Fables stories without Willingham? Perhaps it’s in their contract with him, but perhaps not.

Wait, they wouldn’t produce new stories without the original creator, would they?


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