Archie is the most anti-creator publisher in the comics industry.
DC's bad. Marvel's worse. But Archie is the worst.
To this day, Archie's official company line is that Archie (the character) was created by company founder John Goldwater, while Bob Montana merely created "the original characters' likenesses". And it took an out-of-court settlement for Bob Montana to get even that half-assed credit.
And talking of court cases, what happened when Dan DeCarlo tried to get a piece of the Josie and the Pussycats movie? He was fired. After freelancing for the company for forty years and becoming the definitive Archie artist (and indeed the definitive "good girl" artist). And firing him apparently wasn't enough — Archie actually started removing his name from reprints.
Archie has the gall to continue to claim that Dan DeCarlo didn't actually create Josie — a character who is named after his wife.
Archie creators don't even get royalties or any form of profit sharing — you get a page rate and that's all.
So it was against this historical backdrop that I heard Ken Penders claim that his Sonic comics had not been work-for-hire, and I was skeptical. Well, "skeptical" is one of the politer words I used at the time — I also said his claims "strike me as some legitimately crazy shit".
(I suspected for awhile that this was why I was never approved to post on Ken's messageboard; now I'm more inclined to believe it's just an automated system that filters out four-letter names as probable spambots. At any rate, it was still a rude thing to say and I now believe it was factually inaccurate besides.)
That was my read on the case for the first couple years it ran, but not long after that, the other shoe dropped and the scope of what Penders was really claiming became clear: Archie never made him sign a contract. If you look through my posts from around that time (and I'll have a bibliography post in the next couple days), you can watch the scope of the claim begin to dawn on me and my view of the case start to shift to Penders's favor.
Hard as it was to believe, it was starting to look like Archie, the company that had been so iron-fisted in its treatment of its own creators over the past 70 years, really had dropped the ball. Ken wasn't the only creator making these claims. Scott Shaw, Elliot Maggin, and a laundry list of others were too.
Here's the thing about work-for-hire: under the Copyright Act of 1976, work-for-hire agreements must be made in advance, in writing. If Ken did not sign a contract before producing his work, then it was not work-for-hire.
Which still doesn't necessarily mean, in and of itself, that he didn't transfer the rights to Sega by way of Archie — he could have sold the rights, even if the work wasn't produced for-hire.
But that doesn't seem to have happened.
Archie has produced some contracts which appear to have Penders's signature on them — but they're sloppy, incomplete photocopies, and they're dated years after Ken first started writing and drawing Sonic comics. Ken has implied, though he's been very careful not to say it outright, that his signature may even be forged on them.
And personally — and please note that this is pure unsubstantiated conjecture on my part — I think he's got proof. Because by the end of last year, Archie was talking settlement.
Indeed, Archie's lawyer recently said the company was "desperate" to settle. But it hasn't.
And that's because this isn't just about Ken Penders and Archie. Sonic is a licensed comic; Sega owns the rights. Not just to the original characters, but to all the comics and everything in them. If Archie lost the license, Sega would retain the rights to reprint everything through another publisher (like how Dark Horse can reprint Marvel-era Conan and Star Wars).
At least, that's how it's supposed to work. But, if Ken is right and Archie never made him sign a contract, that means he owns, or at least co-owns, all the material he wrote or drew.
The way the contracts were supposed to work is that the writers and artists sign them and immediately give up the rights to Sega. According to Penders, Shaw, Maggin, et al, that didn't happen.
So Sega is denied the ownership it expected, because Archie screwed up the paperwork.
And, not to put too fine a point on it, Sega's been sued over it. And might be again.
Because I've been talking about Archie v Penders here, but there's another suit out there: Penders v Sega and EA.
The Sega/BioWare game Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood included villains who resembled Penders's Dark Legion characters. I will grant that I've never played Dark Brotherhood — but I'll also say that the very first thing I thought when I saw the advertising materials was "Oh, it's the Dark Legion."
So Archie v Penders has a direct bearing on Penders v Sega and EA — because the outcome of Archie v Penders will determine whether Penders owns the Dark Legion and has grounds to sue for their appropriation in the first place.
If I were representing Sega, I'd be pretty angry at Archie for fouling up the paperwork and putting my company into this position. And I'm willing to bet that Sega is a lot less interested in settling than Archie is. Because even if it reaches an arrangement where it pays out a small, one-time settlement fee and doesn't have to worry about paying Penders for reprints or for any future games or reissues, a settlement opens the door for more writers and artists to assert their copyrights and pursue compensation.
So that's where things stand as of last week. Archie wants to settle but Sega hasn't granted approval for a settlement.
The judge is pushing to bring Sega in on the negotiations ASAP, and that should determine whether the suits are settled or go to trial. There should be more news any day now.