The preceding paper is the result of over three years' worth of investigation into this tangled question. This version of the work began to take its current form as part of a submission for a graduate seminar I was taking in late 2006. The professor praised my work and suggested that I attempt to publish my findings.
Throughout 2007, I researched various avenues for publications. Mainstream academic journals did not seem to be a good fit for this work given the lack of interest in copyright before the digital age. This paper advances a modest theoretical claim - that American copyright law is incomplete in a fashion that would make Kurt Gödel proud - and uses a detailed case study to make that point. Serious academic readers and journals tend to look for the inverse.
While I never found a suitable home for this piece, I did attract the interest of quite a few non-academics who read brief descriptions of my project. One of the people who contacted me was Robert C. Harrall. Mr. Harrall is significant because he recently reconstituted the Lovecraft literary estate as Lovecraft Properties LLC in Rhode Island.34 Mr. Harrall is the grandson of Ethel Morrish. Given the good fortune of having been contacted by a direct descendant of one of the primary players in this situation, I gleefully responded to Mr. Harrall with an earlier version of this work with the request that he inform me about any inaccuracies that I may have pieced together working from incomplete evidence.
During this time, I was contacted by comic book artists, audio book producers, filmmakers, and other creative types interested in adapting Lovecraft to their medium of choice. In one last ditch effort to get this paper published, I submitted it Lovecraft Studies, a journal published by Hippocampus Press that S.T. Joshi edits.
Within a few days, I received a response from Mr. Joshi thanking for me for my submission and informing me that this paper was severely flawed because it failed to take into account the claims advanced by the Lovecraft literary estate. I thanked Mr. Joshi for reading my paper and informed him that despite my repeated requests, the Lovecraft estate (Lovecraft Properties LLC) declined to put forth any claims or offer any clarification about their rights with respect to the Lovecraft fiction. After sending my explanation to Mr. Joshi, I e-mailed Mr. Harrall requesting an explicit enumeration of the legal and moral claims advanced by the estate.
At the moment, I find myself in a bit of a limbo. I advanced a researched and documented hypothesis about the state of these copyrights, only to be rebuffed by those most likely to know more about this than I've been able to uncover. I am in the odd position of being informed that my research is flawed because I have not addressed claims that refuse to be enumerated.
Despite these setbacks, I am confident that the conclusions stated in this paper are sound. The Lovecraft literary estate may have established itself to enforce literary rights, but it needs proof that it actually possesses these rights. I cannot speak for the Lovecraft writings not explicitly addressed by this paper (poems, letters, revisions, etc.), but I can confidently state that my conclusion (the Lovecraft fiction is effectively in the public domain) holds unless presented with new contradicting evidence (such as renewal records from the 1950's). I remain skeptical that such documents still exist.
Update, August 2008: Some months after I published this article online, I visited Providence to learn more about the Lovecraft estate headed by Mr. Harrall. I visited the Providence City Archives and discovered that in the state of Rhode Island, Albert A. Baker passed the executorship of the Lovecraft estate to Mr. Harrall in 1974.
Mr. Harrall conducted an inventory of the estate in 1974 and submitted to the probate court that the estate consisted of
Any and all writings of the late Howard P. Lovecraft which are not copyrighted or are not part of the public domain and all letters, photographs, and books whether published or unpublished and other previously unpublished material. All writings which though copyrighted may not have been copyrighted by individuals, companies, corporations or associations who possessed the right or authority to copyright said materials.35
The value these materials were set at $1,000 (approx. $4200 in 2008 dollars).
These probate documents clarify the legal sequence of succession of control of the from estate from Lovecraft to the present (Lovecraft, Baker, Harrall) but they do not shed any light on the issue of the missing copyright renewals from the 1950's. Using these documents as a guide, Mr. Baker would have been the party empowered to renew Lovecraft's work.
Given the lack of evidence that Mr. Baker ever renewed the copyrights for Lovecraft's work, I continue to stand by the original claims advanced by this work.