DC Comics Says It Will Fight ‘Fables’ Creator’s Claim the Series Is Now Public Domain

Writer Bill Willingham declared the acclaimed series no longer under copyright on Thursday

Fables Comic Book becomes public domain
Bill Willingham for Vertigo/DC

In response to an ongoing dispute with DC Comics, Bill Willingham, the creator of the acclaimed comic “Fables,” declared Thursday that he was making the work part of the public domain. But in a terse statement Friday, the publisher said it would fight to retain ownership of the series.

“The ‘Fables’ comic books and graphic novels published by DC, and the storylines, characters, and elements therein, are owned by DC and protected under the copyright laws of the United States and throughout the world in accordance with applicable law and are not in the public domain,” the company said. “DC reserves all rights and will take such action as DC deems necessary or appropriate to protect its intellectual property rights.”

“Fables” creator Willingham didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment from TheWrap.

On Thursday, in a statement posted to his Substack, Willingham declared that “Fables” would become part of the public domain effective Friday in response to what he described as years of bad faith dealings by DC.

Willingham said he was able to do this because the deal he struck with DC Comics to create “Fables” gave him full ownership of the property.

“The one thing in our contract the DC lawyers can’t contest, or reinterpret to their own benefit, is that I am the sole owner of the intellectual property,” Willingham wrote in part. “I can sell it or give it away to whomever I want.”

“I still can’t publish ‘Fables’ comics through anyone but them,” he added. “I still can’t authorize a ‘Fables’ movie through anyone but them. Nor can I license ‘Fables’ toys nor lunchboxes, nor anything else. And they still have to pay me for the books they publish. And I’m not giving up on the other money they owe.

“For better or worse, DC and I are still locked together in this unhappy marriage, perhaps for all time,” he added.

What can be done with the license

But, he argued, the public at large didn’t enter into the same agreements that Willingham did, stating that he doesn’t believe his audience or others are bound by the same restrictions.

“You, the new 100% owner of Fables never signed such agreements,” Willingham wrote. He did admit to copyright and trademark law being confusing, but that, “If I understand the law correctly … you have the rights to make your Fables movies, and cartoons, and publish your Fables books, and manufacture your Fables toys, and do anything you want with your property, because it’s your property.”

He added, “You don’t have to get DC’s permission, or the permission of anyone else.” But he did later clarify on X (formerly known as Twitter) that the rights he’s giving to the public don’t include the right to republish previous stories, though you’re welcome to create your own new stories in the world of “Fables” with his versions of the characters.

Willingham’s contract with DC Comics hasn’t been made public, so the precise terms granting him ownership are unknown. It is also unclear what elements DC would own regardless of Willingham’s claim.

Calling the move “asymmetric warfare,” Willingham said in his statement that he declared “Fables” to be public domain in part because “I can’t afford to sue DC, to force them to live up to the letter and the spirit of our long-time agreements; since even winning such a suit would take ridiculous amounts of money out of my pocket and years out of my life.”

But it appears a lawsuit may happen regardless.

The history of “Fables”

“Fables,” which ran as part of DC’s Vertigo imprint from 2002-2015 before being relaunched last year, was a major financial and critical hit throughout its original run. The sprawling epic follows dozens of characters from myth, legend, fable and folklore, such as Snow White, the Big Bad Wolf, Pinocchio and many others, who were driven out of their magical universe and forced to live in hiding in the real world. The complete original series is available in collected trade paperbacks and digitally.

The 2022 revival is still ongoing, with the final issues, still written by Bill Willingham, set for publication this November. Willingham noted in a followup FAQ that he turned in his script for these 12 issues of Fables two years ago.

“At that point I fired the lot of them and haven’t regretted it,” Willingham wrote. “Why spend my remaining years continuing to work with thugs and conmen?”

According to Willingham, he had also given DC non-specific warnings.

“Without giving them details, I warned them months in advance that this moment was coming,” Willingham wrote. “I told them what I was about to do would be ‘both legal and ethical.’ Now it’s happened.”

The move is similar to conflicts between publishers and other major comic creators, such as “Watchmen” creator Alan Moore, who continues to speak against DC Comics for what he believes were immoral business practices by DC surrounding the rights to his work. But Willingham seems to retain a more positive view on the company, writing on X: