Digital Comic Museum > Rules and FAQ's

Can I safely use Anything on DCM in my own business? Do I need your permission?


John C:
Nobody needs our permission to use a scan found on this site.
But if you do use something for business purposes you do so At Your Own Risk.

Basically (and I'm repeating the other points for consistency), the deal is:

1.  We're not lawyers and can't legally guarantee that any decision we've made is actually right.  Free advice is usually worth the price, and all that.  Also, even though we skirt the rules a tiny bit by using the CCE (see Yoc's link) because it's a million times easier, there's no substitute for having someone at the Library of Congress looking at fifty-year-old cards in terms of protecting yourself.

2.  When copyrights expire on a work, there is no longer an exclusive right (monopoly) to decide how/when to copy, and you can treat it as if you own it--if you're in the United States, you literally do own it.

3.  What applies to the whole applies to the parts, so a single panel is covered by the book's copyright.

4.  ...Except when it's not.  Sometimes, a specific story (a "contribution to a periodical" is what the Copyright Office calls it) or image may have its own copyright.  It seems to be rare for comic books, especially this old, but does happen from time to time.  Thankfully, during the period we cover, the contribution needs to have its copyright specified prominently to have been protected, making it easier to look it up.

5.  Trademarks aren't copyrights, so just because we have an issue of St. John's Casper the Friendly Ghost series (to pick an example I happened to look at recently), and I'm certain it's in the public domain, if you use it, you can still expect someone at Paramount to scream because they own Casper as a brand.  This may be changing, because a case involving Betty Boop was ruled in favor of the small business, but I'm sure there's an appeal in the works and they'll bug you regardless because not doing so risks their losing the trademark.

6.  If you're not in the United States, you may not have the concept of the public domain at all (all IP is owned by somebody, basically) and, in rare cases, copyright infringement may be illegal in the sense that the government prosecutes you, rather than waiting for the copyright holder to deal with you directly.

I hope that's of some use.  For the most part, a shirt with the background in anonymous panel #285 from a public domain book a hundred people have read is going to be safe, but it's always best to be paranoid and cover all the bases.

I've moved this to here as it's a pretty frequent question.

John C:
A slightly more formal Mini-FAQ...

1)  Can I Use the Comics Commercially?

This is not a straightforward question, so the right answer is to ask an Intellectual Property lawyer familiar with your region.  Remember that none of us here are lawyers, taking legal advice from a layman is rarely wise, giving legal advice without a license can itself be legally problematic.  So this response is merely our understanding.

That disclaimer aside, to the extent that our limited resources have been able to determine, the books here were either published without a copyright or not renewed when copyrights expired.  In the United States, that means that the books should be in the public domain and you should be able to use them for any purpose, commercial or not.  The ownership is public.

Other countries have no concept of copyright, no concept of the public domain, a set of moral rights distinct from copyright, and different (and evolving) treaty relations with the United States in terms of how copyrights are to be respected overseas.  Different rules may also apply in every location where you plan to sell your products.

We are unable to keep up with these affairs, so if you have investigated it in your country, we would very much like to hear from you.

2)  Are the Characters in the Public Domain?

Like commercial use, status of characters is very tricky and well beyond our place and power to explain.  Again, take the following with a grain of salt, and invest in some time with a knowledgeable lawyer if you care about the answers.

Worse, the answer is we don't know.  Copyright law in the United States says nothing about "characters," only "works."  It is generally assumed that those characteristics of a character appearing in a public domain work (or that appear in so many sources as to be generic) can be considered to be in the public domain.

Even assuming that, though,

* Copyrights on later stories;
* Copyrights on earlier stories;
* Trademarks (registered at the Federal or state level and unregistered/common-law) on names, logos, or costume elements; and
* Occasional design patentsmight block certain kinds of uses or using characters in certain ways.

Lastly, there is nothing stopping someone misinformed who believes they "own" a character from suing.  They might not win, but the effort involved in defending against a lawsuit may not be worth it.

3)  What If the Original Company Is Gone?
What If the Property Is Abandoned?
What about Orphan Works?
But Nobody Has Been Sued for Using XYZ!

Again, these questions or objections should go to your lawyer, but we'll try to give a sense of the answer's outline.

In short, copyright doesn't go away unless the term expires or the owner donates the copyright to the public.  There is no rule for an abandoned copyright and the Supreme Court has denied at least one argument of adverse posession, and there is no legal concept of an "orphan work."

In the event of a company closing or an artist passing away, copyrights go to someone, just like a contract or a lamp would, with no legal guidance over who should.  The new owner may choose to ignore any or all infringement or simply not know what they own, and either of these situations can change quickly.  The owner may also know what they own and could have licensed their work to anybody currently using it.

The Digital Comic Museum does not condone even such "victimless" piracy.


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