Skip to main content

How Copyright Terms Restrict Scholarship

In order to write a book about the Wonder Woman comics, Noah Berlatsky had to resort to pirated reprints.
(Photo: andertoons-cartoons/Flickr)

(Photo: andertoons-cartoons/Flickr)

The original Wonder Woman issues from the 1940s by writer William Marston and artist Harry Peter are some of the most bizarre and beautiful comics ever made. The comics combine a giddy whimsy—giant space kangaroos with extra lungs, de-evolution machines, attacks by mole men—with sexy bondage play that is startlingly explicit considering the pre-pubescent audience. Wonder Woman ties up the bad guys and is herself trussed soundly on just about every page—most spectacularly in a gimp mask. On Wonder Woman's native Paradise Island, the all-female society of Amazons play suggestive games in which they put on deer costumes and pretend to eat each other. Half the villains Wonder Woman fights are cross-dressers, it seems like—the other half have hypnosis powers. There are scenes of bondage and submission with babies. There are scenes of bondage and submission with gorillas. The comics are insane and wonderful—I love them so thoroughly that I wrote an entire book about them (Wonder Woman: Feminism and Bondage).

Maybe after reading that description of the Marston/Peter issues, you are saying, "Good lord, gorilla bondage and space kangaroos. I have to read these comics!" A natural impulse—but a surprisingly difficult one to follow through on. DC comics, which owns the rights to Wonder Woman, has been lax in its approach to reprinting the early issues. They started an expensive hardback archive edition but never completed the entire run; many of the books are now out of print. A cheaper Chronicles edition was started too but that managed even fewer volumes before flaming out. Last year, IDW publishing did release a collection of the newspaper comic strips (as opposed to full comic books) that Marston and Peter worked on for a year and a half at the height of Wonder Woman's popularity. The book is fairly expensive for casual readers, and it includes only a fraction of the entire Marston/Peter Wonder Woman output. But at least it's something.

Copyright in the United States is supposed "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries," according to the Constitution. Yet, in the case of the early Marston and Peter comics, copyright appears to have failed. DC is not keeping the comics in print: So, in order to read the complete run of Wonder Woman in her two comics (Wonder Woman and Sensation Comics) for my research, I had to find unlicensed digital editions. Without piracy, my book would have been impossible to complete.

"Good lord, gorilla bondage and space kangaroos. I have to read these comics!"

There's clearly some market for the comics, since pirates have created digital editions. Corey Creekmur, an associate professor of cinematic arts and English at the University of Iowa (and the editor of my Wonder Woman book), told me that there would almost certainly be reprint editions of the early Wonder Woman comics if they were no longer covered by copyright, given the fact that "there is so much far more obscure material being reprinted now.”

But DC, which is focused on publishing new comics and licensing characters to the big screen, isn't focused on the smaller audience for 60-year-old comic books. Because of copyright restrictions, other sellers can only reprint the material surreptitiously, through quasi-legal channels. Scholarship and access to seminal works are clearly part of the progress of the useful arts, but in this instance, copyright was a barrier to both. I was able to read about Wonder Woman's adventures tying up female gorillas and escaping from gimp masks despite copyright, not because of it.

That's not unusual, according to David R. Hansen, a professor and librarian at the University of North Carolina School of Law. Copyright, he says, can often effectively restrict dissemination of older works. Part of the problem is a move away from a "formalities system.” The U.S. used to require copyright holders to update copyright information partway through the term in order to retain their rights, so there was at least some public information available about who you could talk to if you wanted to license material. With that requirement gone in more recent versions of the copyright law, it's become harder to track down copyright holders, and harder to license material, especially from older works.

Then, there's the difficulty of actually getting in touch with the rights holder once you figure out who it is. In the case of Wonder Woman, you'd have to get permissions from DC. But now it's a part of the massive Time Warner conglomerate. Who's to say they'll even return your calls? As Hansen told me: "In some cases you can find the owner, but they just don't want to deal with you. I hear cases like this all the time where someone wants to use something for some smaller project, and they're trying to get hold of a corporate rights holder, and it's hard just to get a response from them."

The original copyright term was 14 years, with an option of renewal for another 14 years. Obviously, if that 1790 law were still in effect, Wonder Woman would have been out of copyright long ago, and complete editions would almost certainly be available. Copyright has been extended again and again over the years, though. Today, work-for-hire creations like Wonder Woman, which were produced by employees of a corporation, are under copyright for 95 years. That means that those early Wonder Woman comics will remain DC's property into the 2030s and 2040s. That means nobody but DC can reprint them legally—to the sorrow of fans and scholars.

If it were up to me, I'd make copyright significantly shorter. Twenty years from the death of the author seems more than enough, and there's no reason work-for-hire rights should extend beyond 50 years. But Congress is unlikely to consult me—which leaves technological solutions. Karen Green, who maintains the comics collection at Columbia University's library, told me she'd like to see a "digital database for academic libraries," where digitized archives of comics would be available on a subscription basis. Unfortunately, such a database would be expensive, and rights holders might not see it as worth pursuing for the potential return.

On the other hand, commercial downloadable comics are a growing part of the industry. DC has been unwilling to produce a complete print edition of the Marston/Peter comics, but maybe it would be cheaper, and more feasible, for them to produce a complete digital edition, from space kangaroos to deer costume bondage and back again. I hope so, anyway. It's long past time for Wonder Woman, bound in copyright, to be released.