Here's an odd little story that has been brewing over the past couple of days: Ken Penders, who wrote the Sonic the Hedgehog series for Archie Comics for over a decade, is claiming he owns the rights to the stories he wrote and the side characters he created. Not surprisingly, Archie Comics is disputing the claim.
A few days ago, Penders posted this claim on his website:
As of April 21, 2010, the U.S. Copyright Office finally began certifying my copyright claims (which I initially filed beginning back in January 2009) on every single story I ever wrote, penciled or both for Archie Comics. As a result, I am now officially recognized by the U.S. Government as the owner of every single SONIC and KNUCKLES story I ever created (well, almost every one right now, but it will be “all” shortly, as soon as the Copyright Office finishes with the last few claims. But I digress…).
What does this mean?
That means anyone seeking to use my characters, concepts and stories that were published in the pages of SONIC THE HEDGEHOG, various SONIC 48-page specials, various issues of SONIC SUPER SPECIALS, the PRINCESS SALLY mini-series, the SONIC'S FRIENDLY NEMESIS KNUCKLES mini-series, KNUCKLES THE DARK LEGION and the KNUCKLES THE ECHIDNA series, must first contact me for permission and to make arrangements for the use of this material.
This, of course, would be bad news for the Archie people. Penders came on board with Sonic #11, and is claiming copyright on stories from that issue through issue #135, running from 1993 through 2006, when he left the series. He claims that not only that material (which Archie has already reprinted in digest form) but also any material derived from it, such as stories that follow his storylines or include characters he invented, belongs to him, and Archie Comics cannot use any of it without his permission. Penders lays this out quite clearly:
Every story since issue #160 that features my characters and concepts is essentially unauthorized, as I did not grant Archie Comics the right to use my creations for their benefit without compensation to me.
I asked Mike Pellerito of Archie Comics for a response, and he set me this e-mail:
We have been in contact with our legal team and the claims by Ken Penders are completly false. We will be responding through proper legal channels.
Tristan Oliver of the Sonic news site TSSZ News did a little investigative reporting, apparently reading through all Penders's copyright claims (which are archived here; enter "Penders Ken" to get the full list). Most of the claims are for just the text of a story, or text and "2-dimensional artwork," which presumably means thumbnails. It looks like Penders did claim ownership of some characters, but the U.S. Copyright Office has not granted it, instead putting this notation in the file:
Regarding author information and new material included: Characters as such not registrable; registration based on deposited authorship describing, depicting, or embodying the characters. Authority Compendium II 202.02(l).
That suggests the Copyright Office needs more information before granting the claim. Oliver concludes that Penders has a potential claim for exactly one character, Hershey.
Penders says he took the action when he learned that Sega was using characters and concepts he created in the video game Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood. He says he did not sign away the rights for his creations to be used in other media. While Penders says he is working on his own original stories using the characters he created, it's hard to imagine how he could pull that off without bringing in Sonic or other copyrighted story elements.
He also puts retailers and distributors on notice:
At this time, anyone distributing and selling copies of SONIC ARCHIVES Nos. 3 through 13, SONIC SELECT Nos. 1 and 2, as well as any of the latest issues of SONIC THE HEDGEHOG and SONIC UNIVERSE that feature my characters in any way, shape or form will be asked to cease and desist or else risk facing the consequences. This includes any version of said material, which also includes my original works, which sees release in any format beyond the original published comic books, including but not limited to digital downloads. (Yes, the iTunes and iPhones stores distributing my stories are currently infringing my copyrights, and are in the process of being made aware of this infringement.)
Johanna Draper Carlson, from whom I first heard about this story, has an excellent post putting the whole thing into context; Pender had criticized the work of his successor, Ian Flynn. She also notes a great deal of fan outrage on the Sonic bulletin boards. (What, you didn't know there were Sonic bulletin boards? Welcome to the Internet, my friend.)
(Images of Julie-Su and Hershey are from the Mobius Encyclopedia.)