The Black Seas of Copyright

An investigation into the copyright status of the H.P. Lovecraft fiction

Abstract

Howard Phillips Lovecraft became a major figure in the horror, science fiction, and fantasy genres when pulp fiction magazines published his stories in the 1920s and 1930s. Since his death in 1937, confusion continually surrounded the ownership of his fictional works. This paper analyzes two prominent hypotheses concerning these copyrights. The dominant hypothesis describes how August Derleth and Donald Wandrei obtained control of Lovecraft's works via the 1941 Morrish-Lewis agreement and the 1947 Weird Tales copyright transfer. An alternative hypothesis explains that the works became part of the public domain when no renewal records were filed. Because both hypotheses rely on unverifiable claims, this paper introduces a new hypothesis showing that the works are effectively in the public domain on the basis of court filings in a 1974 lawsuit between Wandrei and his dead partner's estate. The difficulty required to firmly establish the copyright status of these works illustrates a major problem of American copyright law.

How to use this document

This is a hypertext adaptation of my original paper. It is a work in progress and I have done my best to exploit the hypertext medium. Throughout the paper, you will find links like this that are followed by a small elder sign icon. These links lead to resources off-site that more fully explore the linked item or concept.

As a work in progress, this paper may be revised periodically to correct any factual errors found or to incoroprate newly discovered facts or interpretations. If you find an error in this paper (factual or otherwise), please let me know via e-mail, so that I can update the document.

Many of the citations that I make throughout the paper refer to court documents and letters that I obtained from a variety of sources. In a perfect world, I would have the time and resources to digitize and link to all of them. However, given the large number of documents and my limited time, I compromise by quoting the relevant sections. If it would be useful for you if I provided digital scans of the original documents, send me an e-mail so that we can discuss which specific documents hold your interest and the best strategy for placing them online.

Disclaimer

This electronic paper is a work in progress. I spent substantial amounts of time and resources over the past four years piecing together this story, but I cannot claim that I captured every detail or every nuance. This work represents my best effort at deciphering the puzzles that are the Lovecraft copyrights.

I am not a copyright attorney by trade, so please consult with an attorney for specific legal advice that pertains to your given circumstances. The scope of this paper covers the legal status of Lovecraft's works in the context of United States copyright law. The claims advanced by this paper only pertain to the original editions of Lovecraft's fiction and do not purport to make claims concerning his other writings (essays, letters, poems). Revised versions of Lovecraft's stories (such as the Joshi revisions) are beyond the scope of this document.

Contents

  1. Introduction

  2. Lovecraft's Fiction

  3. Arkham House Publishers and the H.P. Lovecraft Copyrights

  4. The Arkham House Copyright Hypothesis

  5. The "Donald Wandrei v. The Estate of August Derleth" Hypothesis

  6. Observations

  7. Conclusion

  8. Coda

Online supporting documentation

H.P. Lovecraft's will (1912)
Annie Gamwell's will (1940)
Morrish-Lewis "gift" (1941)
Weird Tales copyright assignment (1947)
Derleth-Wandrei contract (1955)
Scans of various Lovecraft probate documents

In addition to the scans of primary documents above, I have been fortunate to have recently acquired a copy of George T. Wetzel's similar investigations conducted during the 1970's that are mentioned throughout this work. I have posted a scan of a compilation of this work published by Hobgoblin Press in 1983:

The Lovecraft Scholar

1. Lovecraft's Literary Executor
2. The Pseudonymous Lovecraft
3. Copyright Problems of the Lovecraft Literary Estate

Full permission to post this electronic document has been generously provided by Sam Gafford of Hobgoblin Press. Please note that due to the recent acquisition of this article, my own work has not yet been updated to reflect any specific findings or questions raised by Mr. Wetzel.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Randall A. Everts for his generous donation of documents that describe others' past attempts to answer this question and for providing guidance about useful places to look for more information. John Mark Ockerbloom's and Philip Harper's scans of copyright catalogs saved me many trips to the federal repository libraries.

Document history

Aug. 13, 2008: Updated the Coda to reflect new information about the Lovecraft estate acquired from the Providence City Archive. Posted a PDF version of these documents.

Mar. 15, 2008: Updated Lovecraft's Fiction to correct a minor grammatical error. Clarified the references to the Copyright Act of 1976 (that went into effect in 1978).

Mar. 9, 2008: Updated the Coda to include more information about Lovecraft Properties LLC. See footnote 34 for details.

Dec. 26, 2007: Posted a PDF version of George T. Wetzel's The Lovecraft Scholar and added links to the appropriate portions of the text.

Dec. 2, 2007: Corrected some minor misspellings (John Hay Library, not John Hays Library), updated mentions of "the Morrish-Lewis contract" and "1947 Weird Tales contract" be "the Morrish-Lewis agreement" and "1947 Weird Tales copyright transfer", respectively.

Oct. 24, 2007: Posted PDF scans of the Derleth-Wandrei contract (1955), Annie Gamwell's will (1940), H.P. Lovecraft's will (1912), the Morrish-Lewis "gift" (1941), and the Weird Tales copyright assignment (1947). Updated footnotes and other links to point to local PDF scans instead of outside transcriptions.

Oct. 9, 2007: Initial version of the hypertext edition.

License

Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts.