If I infringe Lovecraftian copyrights will my soul be eaten?
May 24, 2006 3:29 PM   Subscribe

What is the copyright status of works derived from the Cthulhu Mythos? more specifically, could someone just put out their own book, movie or comic extending the Mythos (and using shared characters) or would they have to get permission and pay someone first?

I found some information on the existing works here but I'm more interested in what happens when someone creates new ones.
posted by Artw to Writing & Language (24 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I don't think there really is any copyright issues on the Mythos. A good article here:


talks of Wisconsin's own August Derleth (His stories of Walden West and Sac Prairie are his better works-read them, although they are not horror) and his stories taking off from Lovecraft. Derleth even got to the point of trying to be the arbiter of the Mythos and discouraged other writers from expanding on it. But there were no lawsuits regarding the material.
posted by JJ86 at 3:49 PM on May 24, 2006

I don't think there really is any copyright issues on the Mythos.

With such stringant copyright laws in the US, why would that be? What about similar projects. Surely I'd get sued if I tried to publish a "Star Trek" novel or a "24" comic book.

From Wikipedia:

There exists much controversy over the copyright status of many of Lovecraft's works, especially his later works. Lovecraft had specified that the young Robert Barlow would serve as executor of his literary estate, but these instructions had never been incorporated into his will. Nevertheless his surviving aunt carried out his wishes and Barlow was given charge of the massive and complex literary estate upon Lovecraft's death. Barlow deposited the bulk of the papers, including the voluminous correspondence, with the John Hay Library. However, as a young writer with no legal training his efforts to organize and maintain Lovecraft's other writing stood little chance of success. August Derleth, an older and more established writer than Barlow, vied for control of the literary estate. One result of these conflicts was the legal confusion over who owned what copyrights.

All works published before 1923 are public domain in the US. However, there is some disagreement over who exactly owns or owned the copyrights and whether the copyrights for the majority of Lovecraft's works published post-1923 - including such prominent pieces as The Call of Cthulhu and At the Mountains of Madness - have now expired.

Questions center over whether copyrights for Lovecraft's works were ever renewed under the terms of the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976 for works created prior to January 1, 1978. If Lovecraft's work had been renewed they would be eligible for protection for 95 years after publication, according to the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998. This means the copyrights would not expire on some of Lovecraft's works until 2019 at the earliest, providing that no further laws extend the periods of copyrights within the US. Similarly, the European Union Directive on harmonising the term of copyright protection of 1993 extended the copyrights to 70 years after the author's death.

more here:

posted by grumblebee at 3:57 PM on May 24, 2006

Of course, that is about his WORK -- not the mythos.
posted by grumblebee at 3:57 PM on May 24, 2006

Wikipedia has a whole subheading devoted to this question because the subject is so murky. The short version is you'll probably be okay if you consider the Lovecraft stories to be in the public domain.
posted by BackwardsCity at 3:57 PM on May 24, 2006

Curse you grumblebee!
posted by BackwardsCity at 3:59 PM on May 24, 2006

Response by poster: As a sort of side question I remember hearing somewhere that Chaosism sued the producers of "The Real Ghostbusters" for giving an episode the title "Collect Call Of Cthulhu". I've been googling it and found nothing - did it ever actually happen?
posted by Artw at 4:01 PM on May 24, 2006

Again regardin the work and not the mythos, but Guillermo Del Toro's adaptation of In the Mountains of Madness is screening at Cannes tomorow -- perhaps it will be easy to determine to whom he paid the option for the work?
posted by blueshammer at 4:14 PM on May 24, 2006

Grumblbee, I think the issues you quoted from Wikipedia and that were also touched upon in the artcile I quoted refer more to the republication of Lovecraft's work than the OP's question, which was about spinoffs. Derleth spun off a huge variety in the vein of Lovecraft as well as a hug multitude of other authors. It even continues to this day. In that respect, I say that there is no issue.
posted by JJ86 at 4:29 PM on May 24, 2006


Cthlulu's copyright status is murky?

Somehow, that seems appropriate.
posted by WCityMike at 4:48 PM on May 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I understand the distintion, JJ86. I'd still be surprised if it was legal. What if I make a new movie about Darth Vader? Surely I would be sued by Lucas. Why would Lovecraft stuff be different?
posted by grumblebee at 5:23 PM on May 24, 2006

The thing with spinoffs of the Mythos is that there has been plenty of unlicensed works already produced through the years. With that kind of precedence it makes it hard to deny any other derivative works. If someone wrote a book on Cthulu would they be infringing on the copyright of Lovecraft, Derleth, O'Neill, Howard, Rimel, etc?

Darth Vader, OTOH is clearly in Lucas's hands, so any attempt would at spinning off from that would be a clear violation. You can't really make that comparison. So when you talk about a fictional land already covered by many authors, it veers into the public domain. A more fitting comparison is who owns Dracula?
posted by JJ86 at 5:39 PM on May 24, 2006

The thing with spinoffs of the Mythos is that there has been plenty of unlicensed works already produced through the years. With that kind of precedence it makes it hard to deny any other derivative works.

Well, with trademarks you lose them if you don't enforce them but not copyrights.

If Lovecraft's work is still protected by copyright, then his estate can sue you (successfully, that is) for making the type of derivative work Artw is talking about, even if they turned a blind eye to a thousand other people doing the same thing.

However, the fact that they haven't sued the many others doing the same thing makes it seem unlikely that they will.
posted by winston at 6:15 PM on May 24, 2006

blueshammer: The movie Del Toro is premiering tomorrow is "Pan's Labyrinth," an apparently original story.

At The Mountains Of Madness could possibly still happen, though, but you know how these things go.
posted by Ian A.T. at 8:10 PM on May 24, 2006

Lovecraft died March 15, 1937. As of the most recent law change of which I'm aware, copyright lasts 70 years after the death of the author.

So none of Lovecraft's stories are in the public domain right now, but all of them will be next March 16.

Then the question will be whether the Lovecraft estate filed for trademarks on any of it, because trademarks are eternal. It doesn't seem likely but you never know.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 9:00 PM on May 24, 2006

Actually, I see that Grumblebee already covered some of this. Sorry about that...

The rules are 70 years after the death of the author, or 95 years for a work of "corporate ownership". The real question is whether the latter term applies.

[Grumble, bloody copyright is waaaay too long these days.]
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 9:02 PM on May 24, 2006

Something else to consider. This isn't really about you as an individual creator coming up with a book, movie, or comic about Cthulu. This is about what happens if you do that, then sell your book, screenplay, or comic to a powerful publisher or studio, and they launch a serious effort to make money from the new property. If the publisher or studio believes in your work enough, they will have their lawyers sort this out, or they will tell you to change the name of the monster, or something. Yes, it is possible that they will say 'Sorry man, love your stuff, but do you have the permission of Lovecraft's estate?' They might say that, but I doubt it. The permission is probably either not necessary or easy to obtain if you have a little money.

As already pointed out, the Star Wars analogy really is not valid. I realize that grumblebee chose Star Wars arbitrarily, but the truth is that Star Wars is probably more closely guarded (in terms of the money and resources that have gone into protecting it) as a creative property than anything that has ever been created. In fact, even though you can't copyright a movie title, legend has it that the WGA won't allow anyone to register another screenplay entitled 'Star Wars,' just because they don't want to fuck with Lucas.

As far as Star Trek and 24, you're talking about properties that even now are earning money (and being promoted with money). If you try and earn some money based on those properties, you are threatening the livelihood of living people who worked to create those properties. However, again, it's all about who actually has something at stake. If you want to sell something based on 24 or Star Trek, you can sell it to the companies that own the rights to those properties. Similarly, a publisher or studio that has already done something with Cthulu might have already greased the necessary wheels, and so won't blink when they hear about your idea.
posted by bingo at 9:45 PM on May 24, 2006

Much of Lovecraft's work has been exploited by for-profit interests. Just look at the variations of the Necronomicon that float around.

And here's some AD&D ubergeek trivia:

"The first printing of Deities & Demigods included the mythoi of Cthulhu and Melnibone. The ideas behind the Cthulhu mythos were in the public domain at that time, but copyright on the Cthulhu books in print was owned by Arkham House, who had licensed Chaosium to create a Cthulhu RPG based on those books. TSR thought the public domain status allowed them to create game representations of whatever Cthulhu creatures they desired, and so that mythos was added to Deities & Demigods. TSR then contacted Michael Moorcock, who gave permission for TSR to include the Melnibonean mythos in Deities & Demigods. However, again, Chaosium had already arranged for a license to create an Elric RPG.

"Chaosium became upset that TSR was apparently violating Chaosium's licenses, and the print run of Deities & Demigods was halted while the two companies sat down to talk. Eventually, they agreed that TSR could continue printing the books with the two mythoi as is, on the condition that a note be added to the preface: 'Special thanks are also given to Chaosium, Inc. for permission to use the material found in the Cthulhu Mythos and the Melnibonean Mythos.' The printing plates were changed, and the first printing continued.

"When the time for a second printing came, the Blume brothers decided that a TSR book should not contain such a prominent reference to one of their competitors. They decided to remove the two mythoi, and thus the need for the note."
posted by wfrgms at 9:53 PM on May 24, 2006

If you could successfully sue someone for writing stuff that was arguably from the Cthulhu mythos, Charlie Stross would be in the poorhouse. And he doesn't seem to be.

What if I make a new movie about Darth Vader? Surely I would be sued by Lucas. Why would Lovecraft stuff be different?

Because Vader is almost certainly trademarked in addition to being a character in a copyrighted work, and none of the Star Wars works are even maybe in the public domain.

If it's fully PD'd, then a new story set in the Cthulhu mythos would then be no more problematic than writing a new story about Captain Nemo or Frankenstein.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:43 AM on May 25, 2006

A Shoggoth on the Roof, a wonderful musical based on the Cthulhu mythos, reported problems with the Fiddler on the Roof copyright owners, but no problems with the Cthulhu material.
posted by alasdair at 5:50 AM on May 25, 2006

From article: Now Lovecraft saw the advantages of cross-referencing references to stories by others of his correspondents, as well as encouraging others to make reference to his own dark pantheon. Thus when he began writing "The Whisperer in Darkness," he included mentions of Clark Ashton Smith's Tsathoggua and Robert E. Howard's Kathulos and Bran (even though he would not begin corresponding with Howard until August). Derleth, who we must remember was still a lad barely 21 years old at this time, took his mentor's suggestion and ran with it. Soon he was submitting tales so replete with Lovecraftian touches that Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright was indignantly rejecting them as plagarisms. HPL soothed his pupil's bruised ego by damning Wright's well-intended censures, and pointing out that "I like to have others use my Azathoths & Nyarlathoteps-& in return I shall use Klarkash-Ton's Tsathoggua, your monk Clithanus, & Howard's Bran."

I don't know how Lovecraft could be construed as the sole creator/copyright owner of the Mythos not to mention that he pretty much gave carte blanche approval to the use of his creations here.
posted by JJ86 at 5:57 AM on May 25, 2006

Artw: "As a sort of side question I remember hearing somewhere that Chaosism sued the producers of "The Real Ghostbusters" for giving an episode the title "Collect Call Of Cthulhu". I've been googling it and found nothing - did it ever actually happen?"

Given that Collect Call of Cthulhu was scripted by Sandy Petersen, creator of Call of Cthulhu, it seems unlikely that anyone sued anyone about it.
posted by Hogshead at 8:00 AM on May 25, 2006

In googling about to find a video of Collect Call to watch over lunch, I saw that Michael Reaves is claimed to have written it, not Petersen.

Or am I missing something?
posted by robocop is bleeding at 8:29 AM on May 25, 2006

PS Video Here.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 9:02 AM on May 25, 2006

Weird, you're right. I distinctly remember watching that episode when it went out and gasping audibly at Sandy's credit. Fallibility of human memory and all that.
posted by Hogshead at 12:22 AM on May 28, 2006

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