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More About Fables in the Public Domain
In which I interview myself in order to expand on a few things revealed in yesterday's post.
Question: What have you done?
Bill Willingham: I have purposely and irrevocably surrendered my Fables property to the public domain.
Q: Care to elaborate a bit? What does that mean?
Bill: As the sole owner and creator of the comic book property called Fables, published off and on over the past 20 years by various imprints of DC Comics, I alone had the right, or the power, or the authority (choose your term) to do this. For many reasons, which we are about to explore in detail, I have decided to give Fables over, in its entirety, to the public domain.
Q: So you no longer own Fables?
Bill: Incorrect. I still own 100% of Fables. But now, every man, woman, and child in the world, along with anyone who’s ever born until the end of time, also owns 100% of Fables. It’s not a property divided among all of us, it’s a property infinitely multiplied among all of us. Pretty cool, huh? Every person owns Fables-in-whole, and can decide for himself what, if anything, he wants to do with it. Kind of like a secular miracle of the loaves and the fishes, metaphorically speaking, of course. No matter how many partake, there’s enough for everybody.
Q: Why did you do this?
Bill: That’s a small question that requires a long and complex answer. I’ll try to break it down into more digestible parts. Here’s the first part: Fables was created using characters and stories already in the public domain. It makes sense to me that, eventually, these stories would return to their home ground. I suppose I’d planned to make this happen when I die, but certain events have made it useful to push that timetable ahead by a few years (knock wood).
Q: What events?
Bill: Shortly after creating Fables I entered into a publishing agreement with DC Comics. In that agreement, while I continued to own the property, DC would have exclusive rights to publish Fables comics, and then later that agreement was expanded to give DC exclusive rights to exploit the property in other ways, including movies and TV. DC paid me a fair price for these rights (fair at the time), and as long as they behaved ethically and above-board, and conducted themselves as if this were a partnership, all was more or less well. But DC doesn’t seem to be capable of acting fairly and above-board. In fact, they treated this agreement (as I suppose I should have known they would) as if they were the boss and I their servant. In time that got worse, as they later reinterpreted our contracts to assume they owned Fables outright.
Q: That’s a bold statement. Care to give us an example?
Bill: When DC negotiated the terms under which I would come back to write more Fables issues, for the 20th anniversary of Fables, their lawyers tried to get me to do the work as “work for hire” which would have placed Fables ownership in their hands, and made me simply a hired gun. Note that no money was offered for these additional rights. They just claimed this is how it had to be done. Not to unfairly compare the two properties, or equate them in value, but even Siegal and Shuster were given a (pitiful) token payment for Superman.
Q: But the new Fables issues are coming out, so I assume you were able to come to a deal?
Bill: When I refused to sign a work for hire agreement, and pointed out to their lawyers (they had a team of them on the phone with me) that I still owned Fables, they made the excuse that they hadn’t read the contracts, didn’t know DC didn’t own Fables, and were just confused. After inviting them to read their own contracts, before negotiating a new Fables run, they came back a few days later with a 12-issue service contract that reflected the previous service contracts in the first 150 issues of Fables. They passed the first offer off as a simple mistake.
Q: You don’t believe it was a simple mistake?
Bill: No. I believe they tried to get away with something and then retreated once it didn’t work. In all the years of working with DC, of doing Fables with them, they often broke the terms of our contracts, and always in their favor. In every case, when called on it, they always responded, word for word, with the following excuse: “Sorry, it just fell through the cracks.” I accused them of having that standard excuse printed out and posted on their office walls. Having grown tired of hearing that so often through the years, I eventually sent them an email forbidding anyone at DC from ever again saying, “Sorry, it just fell through the cracks,” again.
Q: Did that work?
Bill: No one at DC’s said that to me since, not in those exact words, but they’ve found many inventive ways to rephrase it.
Q: What sort of things fell through the cracks? What kinds of contract violations occurred, and are they still ongoing?
Bill: There are several stages of production of a given issue of Fables for which they have to get my input. Note that they don’t have to go along with what I say, but they at least have to consult me, before making a decision. They break this rule constantly, and are in fact doing so with the issues currently in production. For example: They have to consult me on choosing cover artists and approving the cover of each issue. That seems a minor violation, but they add up.
Q: They hired a cover artist for the new run without consulting you?
Bill: They offered the job to Mark Buckingham before asking me. Had they asked, as they were required to do, I would have enthusiastically agreed, but they didn’t ask.
Q: So no harm done then.
Bill: Not that time. And when called on it they apologized and trotted out the “fell through the cracks” excuse. And that’s the real problem. When you sign a contract with DC, your responsibilities to them are carved in stone, where their responsibilities to you are treated as “helpful suggestions that we’ll try to accommodate when we can, but we’re serious adults, doing serious business and we can’t always take the time to indulge the needs of these children who work for us.”
Q: Some might say these complaints are small potatoes.
Bill: Perhaps, but they speak to character. If the same violations are constantly occurring, and always to the detriment of the so-called partner they have a publishing agreement with, then, sooner or later one is forced to admit they are bad guys doing bad deeds. And it’s not only small matters. In a recent royalty report, I had to dig through it to discover they’d underpaid me. It turned out they’d “missed” thirty thousand dollars of owed royalties. Maybe a drop in the bucket to them, but it’s my livelihood.
Q: Yikes. Did they pay it?
Bill: Yes. And they apologized. They’re very good at apologizing once they’re caught. Had I not investigated they’d have never paid up. Now, in addition to everything else I have to do to uphold my end of our agreements, I have to double-check everything they’re supposed to do to uphold their obligations. I don’t get paid for that extra work. And note that, even when DC is caught withholding money like that, they pay no penalty. In essence I give them an interest-free loan every time. That’s valuable.
Q: You have no other remedy?
Bill: I could sue them. But they know that isn’t likely to happen. It would take years out of my life and bankrupt me. They know how to play that game and do it well. The courts are their home field.
Q: To get back on track, why are you putting Fables into the public domain?
Bill: I’m not doing it, it’s already done. It can’t be undone.
Q: Okay, fine. But why?
Bill: Since the courts aren’t a battlefield in which I stand much of a chance, the only other way others have chosen to fight DC is by making a big public stink. This has actually worked in the past, but not reliably. Many years ago, when Frank Miller, Alan Moore, and other DC creators came out and proclaimed they’d never do any additional future work for DC, if they kept their newly-announced rating system, DC responded quickly and publicly to smooth things over with them. They were after all the big guns at DC at the time. Later, when Alan Moore went public about the way DC chose to interpret his Watchmen contract (also creator owned, but in the same way as Fables, keeping all of the control with DC), once again DC rushed to smooth things over with him. They flew delegations out to England to meet with him in person. But since Alan Moore was adamant in his stance, and DC wouldn’t budge an inch in the way they interpreted his contract and in the way they intended to keep enforcing it, they were at a stalemate. Effectively, DC lost Alan Moore, and perhaps surprisingly at the time, found out they could survive the loss. They still got to make their millions off of Watchmen every year, so who cares if the creator is upset?
Q: Getting back to Fables…
Bill: But here’s the thing: No one will ever know how valuable the asset is that they threw away. Yes, they sell lots of Watchman, but how many sales did they lose from those who would have bought the book, but didn’t, out of respect for Moore? There’s no way to know, and because there’s no way to know, the loss can never show up in their balance books. How many new and wonderful projects might Alan Moore have done with DC, had they been able to keep him happy (and in this case the way to keep him happy was easy and known: simply be fair in their dealings from now on. Quit trying to cheat him)? There’s no way to know how much DC lost over the years due to something that didn’t happen.
Q: Understood, but getting back to Fables…
Bill: And that’s the problem in a nutshell. DC has had a policy over the years of creating contracts with freelancers that are entirely in DC’s favor. Its contract template can best be illustrated as: The giant black boot of DC Time/Warner Discovery smashing down on the head of the freelancer/creator, smashing the freelancer’s head into the dirt unrelenting and with maximum force. What might happen if DC adopted a policy of writing fair agreements with its content creators and then sticking to them? I fear we’ll never know.
Q: So you’re going public with your dispute with DC?
Bill: No. Or, not entirely. I tried for more than two years to do this quietly. Once DC found they can survive the public fallout of so pissing off a major talent like Moore, with no consequences that can be measured when it’s time to face the stockholders, I think the effectiveness of a public brouhaha has been permanently diminished. I’m no Alan Moore — not even close. I’m not anywhere near his league in talent, and I cannot command the public outcry that gave him even a fighting chance, way back when. So, if I was going to fight my fight, I had to find a third way.
Q: A third way?
Bill: A third way that’s never been tried before, but which has at least a chance of hitting DC where it will hurt them most: The bottom line. But it can’t be anything as nebulous as imagining what they might have made, had they acted better and not cheated as much. It had to be a way that has at least the possibility of getting the attention of the shareholders (and I freely admit this is only a slim possibility).
Q: By putting Fables into the public domain?
Bill: Yes, and therefore by affecting the monetary value of the property, understanding that hurting them in the pocketbook, in a way that can be measured, is the only thing they can recognize.
Q: Doesn’t that also affect your income?
Bill: Yes. Probably. DC has to continue paying me royalties on the books they’ve published and keep in publication, so, as long as I work hard to keep them honest each quarter, I still have some potential income from Fables. If they choose to stop selling Fables entirely, then eventually the contract will be void, and that opens possibilities to me. But I’m not going to count on income from Fables from here on out. I’ve other stories to tell and other creative avenues to explore.
Q: The Fables properties had to be worth a lot of money. Doesn’t giving them away hurt you more than them?
Bill: It depends on what you want and need out of your creative output. When I first contracted with DC to publish Fables, DC was managed by reasonable men and women of character and ethics. Those people have all been replaced over the years, leaving DC under the management of unreasonable men and women of low character and absent ethics. In short, Fables had fallen into bad hands. With this move, placing Fables irrevocably into the public domain, Fables certainly falls into other bad hands, but has also fallen into good hands – and maybe even more good hands than bad ones. For those, like me, who believe stories have value and are worth fighting for, this is a win. Now there are an endless number of people who might also believe in fidelity to the stories as I’ve created them, and that possibility is why I’ve done this. Since this has saved me a small fortune in trying to sue DC into fair dealing (which was always unlikely), I’m ahead of the game. Continuing to live frugally, I should be okay.
Q: What might DC do in response to this?
Bill: I don’t care. What’s done cannot be undone.
Q: I guess you won’t be getting much work from DC in the future.
Bill: I haven’t worked with DC for the more than two years since I handed in my final script for this new run of Fables. At that point I fired the lot of them and haven’t regretted it. Why spend my remaining years continuing to work with thugs and conmen?