I also recommend reading Brendan McCarthy’s comment on Part 2 here, discussing Strange Days, Doom Patrol, and the direct influence of McCarthy and Peter Milligan’s Paradax upon Zenith. I’ll be coming back to that in an upcoming close-review piece(s).
To sum up the situation so far then, here are the key points to bear in mind:
- 2000 AD did not use contracts until the end of 1989 at the earliest. Before this point in time, it was customary to sign the back of a cheque (and later docket), but as far as I can tell this is not legally binding. This has never been tested in court.
- After contracts were introduced they were not always used. In Part 2 I included a quote from artist John Ridgway stating that for his work on The Journal of Luke Kirby, which ran until 1995, he did not receive any contracts.
- The same interview contained the information that Rebellion (owners of 2000 AD since June 2000) use contracts that include an addendum listing “all the work done by that person on work owned by that company”.
Since then I have also been told about the letters that were sent out by Fleetway around 1996 and Rebellion in 2001 to creators, which also covered previous works. The Fleetway one for example stated that due to the number of owners of Fleetway Editions over the years, the company wished to “acquire confirmation” from the creators of their rights to previously published material. For many, this was the first clue that their existing work was perhaps not in fact copyrighted to the publisher. Alan Grant spoke about the Rebellion letter in Comics International in 2002 stating that:
“by signing the commissioning letter, creators/contributors automatically give up all rights to their stories and characters which previously appeared in 2000AD or the Megazine”
This may have also tied into royalties, and almost certainly resulted in all creators that have worked on 2000 AD or the Megazine since 2001 having signed over their copyright to any works not explicitly recognised as being creator owned. There are several creators who have not worked for 2000 AD since 2001, Grant Morrison included, though perhaps some others who have returned have negotiated separately.
I am however led to strongly believe that Steve Yeowell has indeed signed over his copyright on Zenith to Fleetway, and subsequently Rebellion.
As before, all art in this series – unless otherwise stated – is credited to Steve Yeowell, and those involved in legal proceedings around Zenith are not at liberty to comment.
UK Copyright Law
So how does UK copyright work? Very basically (and bearing in mind that I am a freelance writer, not a lawyer!), an original work is immediately under the copyright of the creator when embodied in some physical form – eg put down on paper – with the main exception being if the work was created in the course of employment (not the same as freelancing). This is enshrined in the Copyright Act 1911 and remained the legal position under the Schedules of 1956 Act and the 1988 Act – the latter of which is the current copyright law today and came into force on the 1st August 1989, two years after the debut of Zenith.
In the UK as well, if more than one person qualifies as the creator of the work then all parties hold the copyright, and all must give permission for acts that would otherwise infringe the copyright (eg, reprinting and republication). In the case of comics the main creators are usually the writer and artist who work on the story originally – in the case of Zenith it would be split between Morrison and Yeowell, or Morrison and Rebellion as the case may be if Yeowell has signed over his copyright.
Of course a creator may also assign the copyright to another party, commonly to the publisher in the case of book contracts and magazine contracts. Freelance or commissioned work belongs to the creator – the first owner of copyright – unless or until there is an agreement to the contrary, ie a contract. The contract will commonly either transfer all rights to the publisher, or – as is common in the case of my own newspaper work – grant only the right of first publication and guarantee that the copyright remains with the creator.
As stated above, this includes commissioned work – the copyright remains with the creator unless or until a contract is signed stating otherwise. Without a contract for commissioned work but in an environment where transferring copyright is (perceived to be) the norm, a court could find that there is an implied licence to the publisher from the creator so that the publisher is able to use that work for the purpose for which it was commissioned. However, this does not result in a transfer of ownership. Instead the publisher would commonly be given a limited non-exclusive licence – eg, the right of first publication.
To be clear, “work made for hire” or “work for hire” is not a legally recognised term in the UK. There is “work done in the course of employment” but this applies to employees, not freelancers or contractors (and can still have exceptions built into the contract of course).
European Copyright Law is remarkably similar, with some but not all incorporated into the UK legislation. (The main difference being that the EU is leaps and bounds ahead with regard to copyright within new technologies.)
In short then, the work is always presumed to belong to its creator(s) and a contract is required to prove that the case is otherwise. The onus in this case is on the publisher, not the creator.
Why then, in the obvious absence of contracts across many a comics sphere, have more creators not taken their publishers to court? Well, money is the answer – as it often is! Publishers have far more financial power than even the most popular creator, as well as the time to focus on such a case. A look at any of the legal battles against DC and Marvel will show you just how protracted these things become, and that things are very, very rarely allowed to set a precedent. Settlements are key, as they have no impact on future cases.
Would all previous creators without contract suddenly seeking to establish their own copyrights finish 2000 AD? In light of Rebellion’s contracts covering previously published 2000 AD work, it is unlikely. What it might do is give several works currently in publishing limbo an out to be published elsewhere, or negotiated through Rebellion, on different terms.
2000 AD has been through many owners, and Rebellion are not responsible for practices of the past. However, they can only have bought what the previous owners legally owned, and in the case of missing contracts that have not since been redressed, they would have to prove their ownership – not the creators.
Regardless of your stance on who is right and who is wrong, copyright law is very clear – the copyright always resides with the creator unless proven otherwise.
Clearly in this case, Rebellion (or their lawyers) are interpreting the law somewhat differently. Either that the cheque and docket system does constitute a legal contract perhaps, or that a limited non-exclusive licence would somehow apply beyond the first printing. Answers on a postcard, ie the comments below!
Rebellion Go Helter Skelter
Back to my chronological unearthings then, to the year 2000. The new century saw not only the far off future of 2000 AD finally being realised, but the title alongside its sister publication Judge Dredd Megazine and all their characters, were bought by Rebellion from Egmont Fleetway. Egmont continued the post-editorial publication of titles already under contract from Rebellion until 2001.
2001 also saw the return of Garth Ennis to the pages of 2000 AD after a long break; the Irish scribe of Preacher, Hellblazer, Punisher, The Boys and oh so many more had originally worked on Crisis, Revolver and 2000 AD back in the early nineties. In an interview in 2002 with David Bishop, as part of the research into Thrill-Power Overload, Bishop asked Ennis how and why he had come to return to 2000 AD in 2001 to write the Dredd story, Helter Skelter.
“Well… A deal had been worked out whereby the rights to Troubled Souls, which was the very first thing I ever did for comics and did for Crisis, were available. Rebellion bought them from Fleetway and agreed to return them to me in return for a twelve-episode Dredd strip. And that was essentially it.
Obviously, I have no desire for Troubled Souls ever to see print again. But buried within Troubled Souls are the first appearances of Dougie and Ivor, who would go on to become the Dicks. They’re my all-time favourite characters of any that I’ve written, whether my own or somebody else’s. To get a chance to write them again, to get them back into print, to get Johnny McCrea and I back to doing what amounts to our favourite work was too good an opportunity to ignore. If all I had to do was write 12 episodes of Dredd – which I found thoroughly enjoyable anyway – then it seemed to me to be an excellent deal all round.”
According to Michael Molcher, PR Coordinator for Rebellion, the publisher retains full rights to Troubled Souls, but Ennis was given rights to two characters from Crisis (who star in Dicks), with the publisher underlining that Crisis was not 2000 AD.
I turned to David Bishop once more for some help on the matter, and he told me that while the situation pre-dated his time at 2000 AD, he believed every strip published in Crisis had a contract, with no doubts over ownership. There was also a contractual difference between Crisis and Revolver as compared to 2000 AD and the Megazine; in the former rights were licensed, but in the latter they were assigned.
But Ennis’ situation still seems to differ from that of Morrison at Crisis. While The New Adventures of Hitler had been partially published elsewhere before appearing in Crisis, Bible John had been published only in Crisis – and the rights belong to the creators, Morrison and Vallely. The latter was published in 1991, Troubled Souls was published in 1989. Another case of a missing contract perhaps?
Nonetheless, Helter Skelter does go to show that Rebellion were willing to negotiate over copyright.
So what is the difference between rights being assigned and rights being licensed? Very simply, assigning copyright is akin to selling it verbatim which is typical of the US “work-for-hire” scenario, while licensing copyright only grants permission for a specific usage/purpose, for example perhaps one-off publication rights. The latter would be most likely used in the case of creator owned works, and it’s interesting that Crisis and Revolver, those publications under the very pro-creator rights MacManus and Hogan, both favoured a licence contract.
Remember that these contracts did not come into force at 2000 AD until the very end of 1989, so these do not cover Zenith at all, and they are not the same as the current Rebellion contracts. But they do serve to illustrate the vast difference between a contract and a cheque/docket, and they show that the publisher did have form for licensing copyright as well as assigning it.
John Wagner and Arthur Ranson’s Button Man in 1992 is a prime example, originally conceived for Toxic. (Toxic was a sadly shortlived creator owned anthology set up by Alan Grant, Mike McMahon, Pat Mills, Kevin O’Neill and John Wagner, ie 2000 AD alumni who were chomping at the bit for greater creator control.) You can see a full list of (recognised!) creator owned strips in 2000 AD on the 2000 AD website.
I have in front of me both the Fleetway Assignment Contract and the Fleetway Licence Contract – note, these are not the Rebellion contracts, but the contracts that were introduced back in the early ‘90s, after the beginning of Zenith.
The Fleetway Assignment Contract contained no less than 6 schedules and 16 sections, including listing the various royalties (eg for different syndication methods), merchandising, assignment of rights, waiver, contributor’s warranty, reversionary rights, and so forth. The contents of this 11 page document would certainly not fit on a docket slip.
It should be noted that both contracts require the contributor to waive all moral rights (though I don’t believe this is possible under European Law?), and both state that the royalty given for a reprint in “graphic novel” format, ie trade format, is 5% split between all contributors. This royalty is calculated either from net cover price or net copy sales revenue depending on the wholesaler discount.
But before contracts at 2000 AD, before 1990, we know that the standard practice was to sign the back of the cheque and a docket slip. It was said that doing so was automatically signing away your rights to the publisher, “a legal commitment”, and I’ve been told that it also used to be said that when a creator sent in their invoice, if they didn’t state “First rights only” it was assumed that they were selling all rights.
Aside from not being a contract proper, signing the back of the cheque was also back to front – the creator was only signing something after they had produced the work. If you wanted your money for your completed work, you had no choice but to sign. This is something that the stalled Artists Bill of Rights in the US sought to rectify, but various bids to protect the rights of comic artists and writers have ultimately failed over the years – the publishers still hold all the power, and those who challenge it soon find themselves out of work. And of course there are many others waiting to fill in the gaps when people do take a moral stand.
It’s a result of the never-ending tension between publishers who exist to make profit, and creatives who want to get their work out there and make some kind of a living. It’s the way it always has been is perhaps one excuse, but it’s certainly not one that exists in the greater publishing world. Novelists rightly balk at such practices.
Where Are We Now?
In December 2000, the 2000 AD annual (Prog 2001) featured the return of Zenith with zzzzenith.com. Like Judge Dredd, where our lawman ages in real time, Zenith too had aged with the times and Morrison seemed keen to keep his future open when speaking to Bishop for Thrill-Power Overload:
“I like the idea that Zenith’s a character who ages alongside me in his own little world. I can aways go back and do Zenith at 50 or 70, which should be fun. Every time he appears now it’s more and more cynical.”
Plans to re-print Zenith, and to collect Phase IV, were raised and postponed. We know of course that plans got so far as to see Phase I printed and then stashed in a warehouse with an errant few escaping into the world of eBay. But as Morrison told Bishop in 2002:
“Fleetway have no paperwork to confirm their ownership of Zenith so I’m currently involved in legal proceedings to clear things up. I’m not really interested in making the details public.”
And to Rich Johnston in 2003:
“This one’s in the hands of my lawyers so legally I’m afraid I can’t say a word about what’s going on.”
With Steve Yeowell adding in 2004 for the 2000 AD Review:
“There are indeed copies of a new edition of Zenith Phase One sitting in a warehouse that are waiting for legalities to be sorted out. A couple of dozen actually sneaked out into the market place when Titan, under the impression that everything was about to be resolved, sent some out for a signing. Funnily enough at Dreddcon I signed a copy someone had bought on Ebay. They are at the moment genuine collector’s items and I myself have two that Titan sent me at the time (as I believe does Grant).”
In a 2009 interview with Leonard Pierce at AV Club, Morrison is asked which works from his past he wished had a wider audience today:
“Bible John would be good. There aren’t many documentary comics like that one around. I’d like the Zenith series to be available. I’d love to have a collection of The New Adventures Of Hitler on my bookshop. The Big Dave strips I did with Mark Millar for 2000 AD are some of my favorites and would make a good, daft book. A lot of that late-’80s/early-’90s non-superhero stuff is missing from my shelves, and it’s some of my most interesting, diverse work, I think.”
Note that Bible John, The New Adventures of Hitler, and Big Dave are all creator owned with Zenith alongside them in Morrison’s list. Bible John and The New Adventures of Hitler both appeared in Crisis, while Big Dave appeared in 2000 AD.
And to fans at the 2012 Glasgow Comic Con when asked if he knew if Zenith was coming out:
“Beats me. What can I say? Personally no, I don’t deal with any legal stuff. I’d love to see him back out… it might never happen. It seems a shame. We’ll see what we can do is all I can say.”
Hang On! What About Robot Archie?
Ah yes, the other possible legal tangle surrounding Zenith is the inclusion in the cast of characters of various IPC properties. You can see a whole (fabulous!) scorecard here.
In fact Robot Archie may be another key to this whole mess.
While many of the old UK comics characters who appeared in Zenith were either unnamed (Thunderbolt Jaxon, The Leopard of Lime Street), re-named (Prince Mamba, Miss Wonderstarr), parodied (the 666 world of not-quite-DC Thomson) or simply paid tribute to (Korky the Cat), two characters in particular are quite prominent: The Steel Claw and Robot Archie.
Both look exactly like their good selves, introduce themselves as such (well, Acid Archie is close) and both are perhaps also familiar to readers of Albion, the miniseries from Alan Moore, Leah Moore and John Reppion. That series was published in 2005/6 by Wildstorm in its role as a DC imprint after a deal was forged between DC and IPC media and included a whole host of IPC characters.
Robot Archie first appeared in 1952 in the Lion, a boys weekly adventure comic from IPC that was intended to rival the Eagle. Originally known as The Jungle Robot, the strip later because Archie the Robot Explorer and then as simply Robot Archie. He was the most popular character in the comic which lasted until 1974, and is a treasured part of UK nostalgia.
After a brief cameo in Captain Britain for Marvel UK (courtesy of Moore again alongside Alan Davis), fans were pretty delighted to see Robot Archie’s extended role in Zenith Phase III in 1989 – even as a burned out acid head! Acid Archie gets some of the best lines (see my chosen series title!) and pretty much steals the scene whenever he appears. (His re-appearance in the 2001 zzzenith.com is perhaps a tad more uncomfortable.)
The Steel Claw is a creation from the first issue of Valiant in 1962, another boys weekly adventure comic from IPC. One of the publisher’s major titles, the comic lasted until 1975, and The Steel Claw also featured in a number of digest-size books. He too made a cameo appearance in Moore and Davis’ Captain Britain, though under the pseudonym of The Iron Tallon before later making his re-introduction in Zenith.
Now, Zenith began in August 1987 when the creators probably believed they had the rights to use Robot Archie and The Steel Claw. However just one month prior, Robert Maxwell’s Persimmon BPCC Publishing had bought the IPC Youth Group which included the comics division and copyrights for all titles and characters published since 1969 (with some exclusions). The characters first appeared in Zenith Phase III in 1989. As we can see above, both Robot Archie and The Steel Claw predate 1969, and thus their copyright remained with IPC Magazines.
In 1998, IPC Magazines Ltd had a management buyout funded by Cinven, and was renamed IPC Media. This company was then sold on in 2001 to Time Inc, the magazine publishing subsidiary of Time Warner. Who else does Time Warner own? DC Comics.
In late 2004, IPC Media and DC Comics announced that:
“DC Comics was to become the worldwide master licensee of the rights to produce and publish new comics material based on the IPC library of properties.”
This does not of course cover the rights to reprints, which remain with IPC Media, but DC Comics does have the licence on the characters, and would quite probably seek to pursue any infringement on them. The same announcement told of the upcoming Albion series which featured amongst its stellar cast one Louis Crandall, aka The Steel Claw, and Robot Archie. Albion #1 features Archie’s head on the cover.
Have Rebellion then struck a deal with IPC Media for the reprinting of a story featuring their character Robot Archie? Rebellion themselves do not own the rights to Robot Archie, and 2000 AD in fact never did.
Given Morrison’s worth to DC Comics, would Time Warner consider stepping in on this issue?
Where We Stand Now
On the 29th May 2013, it was announced that 2000 AD was to:
“publish a complete collection of Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell’s ground-breaking superhero series Zenith for the first time” and that “Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell have been informed of the exciting plans for The Complete Zenith.”
The reprint was available to pre-order from the 1st of July. Our own Pádraig Ó Méalóid was one of many who picked up on the peculiar phrasing of “have been informed”, and the absence of comment from Morrison himself has not gone unnoticed. No legal conclusion or mutual happy agreement has been reached.
Morrison – and Yeowell – will of course both receive royalties for their work – all 2000 AD reprints earn royalties for creators regardless of when they were first created.
As a fan of both Morrison and 2000 AD I am delighted to see a Zenith collection coming up for publication, but it does feel like this may be “put up or shut up” move from the publisher with regard to the legal situation on who owns Zenith. Several 2000 AD alumni have told me that they worry the large price point on the book is to build up a hedge fund against legal action. Issues of creator copyright and missing contracts are nothing new in the world of comics, and fans are more than familiar with the ethical and moral conundrums they bring up.
I can’t help but wish that this collection was being published under the triumphant agreement of all parties, available for all readers, old and new.
It shouldn’t matter how successful or otherwise Morrison has been since, though of course it’s far harder for those with more to risk to push on creator rights – no one in comics is that rich, believe me. Equally this is not about people working in a “work for hire” environment and then exploiting a loop hole – copyright has no loopholes. You either have it, or you transfer it legally to another body. “Work for hire” does not exist in UK law, and no one should be pressured into signing over their rights in the name of further employment. We do know though that the majority of 2000 AD work has been retroactively signed over – there is no publisher collapse on the horizon.
If Grant Morrison owns half the rights to Zenith, and Rebellion own the other half by virtue of Steve Yeowell having signed his rights over, that still supplies the latter with a whack of profit and the former with his rights intact (and Yeowell with his royalties either way). It would also get the book back on far more shelves…
Hopefully my extensive look into the True Life of the Fabulous Zenith has underlined the key points in the Zenith story and why many Morrison fans are torn, without disrespecting any of the parties involved.
Because at the end of the day, while I believe creator rights should always be protected, and that publishers pushing comics should be supported, these are real people involved. And life > comics.
Wait, what company is called what now?
For the confused, here is the timeline on who owned 2000 AD and when that I used to keep myself straight throughout this series!
Back in the day, there was a newspaper and magazine publishing company called Amalgamated Press. In 1959 the company was bought by the Mirror and renamed Fleetway Publications, for the Fleetway House in which it was based. In 1963 the company was merged with others into the International Publishing Corporation (IPC), although the Fleetway banner was still oft used.
2000 AD launched in 1977.
In 1987, Robert Maxwell bought the IPC comics line as Fleetway Publications, along with its copyrights for characters and titles published after 1969, paying £6.8 million cash.
In 1988 2000 AD launched a sister publication, Crisis, which ran until 1991 producing 63 issues and 2 specials. Its editor was Steve MacManus.
Another sister publication, Revolver, was launched in 1990 and ran for less than a year, producing 7 issues and 2 specials. This title was edited by Peter Hogan.
Later in 1990, the Judge Dredd Megazine was launched – a monthly title that is still running today – also overseen by MacManus.
In 1991-2, Fleetway Publications was bought by Egmont (then known as Gutenberghus Press) and merged with their existing London Editions to form Fleetway Editions. In 1996 this was renamed as Egmont Fleetway.
In June 2000, Rebellion bought 2000 AD, the Judge Dredd Megazine and characters from Fleetway Editions.
In the meantime, IPC had retained the rights for comic characters and titles published before 1970 with two exceptions: characters from the Buster which had been sold alongside the other copyrights, and Dan Dare who had been sold separately. Characters they have the rights to include Robot Archie, the Steel Claw and Captain Miracle. In 1998 the company had a management buyout funded by Cinven, was renamed IPC Media, and sold on in 2001 to Time Inc, a subsidiary of Time Warner who of course also own DC Comics.
David Bishop, Thrill-Power Overload (Rebellion, 2009)
Grant Morrison, Supergods (Jonathan Cape, 2011)
Speakeasy #76, #100-120 (1987, 89-91)
Alan Moore, The Ballad of Halo Jones Book III – Introduction (Titan, 1986)
Arkensword #23 (1988)
After-Image #6 (1988)
With special thanks to:
Pádraig Ó Méalóid
2000 AD Alumni
Laura Sneddon is a comics journalist and academic, writing for the mainstream UK press with a particular focus on women and feminism in comics. Currently working on a PhD, do not offend her chair leg of truth; it is wise and terrible. Her writing is indexed at comicbookgrrrl.com and procrastinated upon via @thalestral on Twitter.