H.P. Lovecraft copyrights - non-experts weigh in

Have been reading "the internet" on H.P. Lovecraft copyrights. As in, who owns them?

Wikipedia embraces the argument of Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi that the works are mostly in the public domain. Yet copyright claimants exist and approvals must be sought.

The best articles are Dan Harms' and Chris Karr's. An essay by Dwayne H. Olson (aka D.H. Olson) in the Donald Wandrei anthology Don't Dream (Fedogan & Bremer, 1997) covers issues similar to Karr's -- both actually looked at the court documents in Wandrei's papers in the Minnesota Historical Society.

Joshi makes no mention, Olson notes, of the court records in the long-running probate suit over Lovecraft rights, where ownership issues were exhaustively at issue. Olson summarizes the court's findings of five categories of Lovecraft material and degrees of ownership between August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, founders of Arkham House and the two people most responsible for Lovecraft having any literary legacy whatsoever. After their Lovecraft anthology was rejected by major publishers in the late 30s, they started their own company and eventually, over several decades, built the Lovecraft brand, as we would now say.

The probate court expressly didn't decide copyright issues, only the nature of Wandrei's and Derleth's joint ownership of Lovecraft properties after Derleth's death in 1971. Yet the court papers give a vigorous summation of what these literary properties were, including various iffy questions about conveyances of rights. To my mind these questions weren't nailed down back in the day because no one involved, including various Lovecraft distant heirs, thought the property had any value. The heirs and executor were more than happy to grant Wandrei and Derleth whatever rights they needed to develop these speculative properties: "Go, knock yourselves out, and best of luck" seems to have been the attitude.

After 12 years of litigation in which Derleth's lawyer and executor tooled Wandrei around in court (the lawyer was subsequently fired by Derleth's daughter for his scheming), a settlement was reached giving Wandrei 53% and the Derleth estate 47% of the Lovecraft properties, according to Olson. S.T. Joshi would have us believe that these are percentage ownerships of nothing but the trick is proving it. If Arkham House, its partners and their heirs say they have "chain of title" on copyrights, who is going to court to establish otherwise? Likewise it's very unclear what relation the "big" publishers (Del Rey and Penguin) have to the copyrighted material. Do they pay a stipend to the Derleth and Wandrei heirs and assigns for all the books they sell? (Stephen King wonders something similar in the 2004 foreword to Michel Houellebecq's Lovecraft book, although he neglects to mention Wandrei.)

Dan Harms concludes, and I think I agree with this:

This accounts for why exactly the HPL copyright question is unlikely to be resolved for some time to come. It’s not in the best interests of any of these publishers [Del Rey, Penguin, Arkham House] to raise the issue, because they’ll make pretty much the same amount of money either way. It’s not in the best interests of the rights owners to go to court, because they can only lose. Nobody else really has the money or time to go through with it, and the benefits of such a lawsuit are likely to accrue to people who didn’t actually file it. Adding to this the current trend of extending copyright terms again and again, we’ll not likely see HPL be free and clear in the public domain for some time to come.