On my first official day as Editor in Chief, Tuesday, January 3rd, 1978, I arrived at the office extra early. Normal for me was between seven and eight AM. I think I was in my chair behind my desk at five. And I had a one hour commute in those days.
I had worked all weekend editing scripts and plots and still had more to go. There wasn’t anyone to replace me as associate editor, so for the time being, I had to do my old job as well as my new one.
Shortly after nine, my phone rang. The caller identified herself as Alice Donenfeld, our in-house counsel and V.P. of Business Affairs. I hadn’t had much to do with the brass upstairs previously, so I was aware only from the interoffice phone list that there was such a person.
Alice confirmed that she had the right extension, that she was talking to the EIC, and said, “What have you done about the Copyright Law of 1976?”
Alice: “The Copyright Law of 1976. It went into effect January first (of 1978). It has new rules for work-for-hire. We need paperwork from every single writer and artist. Don’t tell me you haven’t done anything about this.”
Me: “I’ve been Editor in Chief for fifteen minutes. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
I soon found out.
All creative work at Marvel Comics was done work-for-hire, or more accurately, as referenced in the Copyright Law, “work made for hire.” Most people just say work-for-hire, abbreviated “W4H.” There were a very few exceptions to W4H before 1978.
Before 1978, almost work done in the domestic comic book industry was done W4H, again with rare exceptions.
The new law didn’t really change work-for-hire status significantly except that it clarified some points and required that in order for a creative work to be considered W4H, the person doing the job had to agree to that in writing in advance.
The new copyright law had been enacted in 1976, but took effect in 1978, giving publishers TWO YEARS to prepare. Marvel, of course, had done NOTHING.
By contrast, DC had already incorporated W4H language into their vouchers and had entered seamlessly into the Brave New World of the 1976 law with, as Uncle Scrooge would say, “no fuss, no muss and no rough stuff.” How’s that for mixing Huxley and Barks? And DC?
Oh, and by the way, Alice was fairly new at Marvel, too. It wasn’t as if she’d let this slide and suddenly sprung it on me at the last minute.
Marvel Comics was in chaos. We had books in house that should have gone to the separators six months earlier and been on sale four months earlier. EVERYTHING was late. We had disorganization, major misunderstandings, tumult and near-rebellions—and that was just in the bullpen. We had voucher fraud and the fallout from same. Paranoia ran rampant among freelancers. We had gaping holes in the editorial staff. The books, by and large, sucked. I got letters and calls frequently from Roy, none of them of the chirpy, happy variety. Marv was deeply suspicious of me. Archie gave me the cold shoulder.
We also had the worst month of weather in history, I think—a record number of below zero days in New York, floods in the Midwest, killer frosts in Florida, mudslides on the West Coast, six feet of snow in Boston and twelve feet in Buffalo. Single-digit newsstand sales figures. It’s hard to visit your local drugstore and pick up your comics if you’re buried in snow, under water or out late every night firing up the smudge pots trying to save the oranges. The entire magazine industry—make that the entire publishing industry—was suffering.
That wasn’t nearly the end of the trouble, but you get the drift.
All that, and they just had to go and change the copyright law on me. Yes, it was done two years earlier, but….
It was the last thing I needed.
We kept publishing, or trying to, but every job that was done without an agreement with the creators was potentially in dispute, ownership-wise.
By the way, that concern didn’t extend to the contract creators’ work. Because our contracts were, in fact, employment agreements, and those creators were therefore on staff though they didn’t work in the office, their work was all automatically W4H. So, whatever was done by the Buscemas, Roy, Marv, Kirby, Sinnott, Esposito, Archie, Gene Colan and many others was covered. That still left a lot of exposure.
I spent the first month madly rushing to the hottest fire every day. Somewhere during that time, Alice arranged for me to take a three-day seminar on Copyright Law so I’d understand the issues better. As if I had three days to spare. But I did it, took my work home with me, stayed up late and slept little.
Finally, our outside counsel, Kenyon, Kenyon, Riley, Carr & Odom, came up with a W4H document which had provisions in it that covered the “exposed” work. It was three or four pages long. It was full of arcane legalese and words of art. More “Whereas/Now, therefore,” “party of the first/second part,” irrevocable this and in perpetuity that than I had ever seen in one place.
I was instructed to have EVERYONE sign them.
They were delivered to me at the end of a particularly bad day. Though it was after five, there were a lot of creators around the office for some reason. I dutifully started passing the documents out.
At a glance, everyone was appalled at the thing. Upset. Angry. And loudly so. And of course, the copyright law wasn’t to blame, Marvel Comics wasn’t to blame, it was MY fault. I was the reason they were faced with this terrifying and evil document. As I said to Alice when all this started, “What?”
Some tore the documents up and threw them on the floor. Some refused to take a copy. A few must have left the building intact, because…
…the next morning, when I came to work, the outside of 575 Madison was papered with copies of the document. The elevator lobby was papered…the elevators…the walls of the sixth floor lobby…the doors. And on each of those copies, in big red letters were the words “SIGN THIS DOCUMENT AND YOU’RE SIGNING YOUR LIFE AWAY.” That, and an invitation to join the COMIC BOOK CREATORS GUILD.
Neal Adams had started a guild. I heard that day that they were talking about going on strike against Marvel. Just Marvel. DC’s W4H, apparently was okay, or maybe the plan was to pick us off one at a time.
That was a discouraging moment, maybe the most discouraging moment I’d faced.
But not for long. Things got worse.
NEXT: The Guild, and Steve Ditko’s Declaration