Fables creator Bill Willingham shocked the comics world on 15 September, as he announced the beloved franchise would be entering the public domain, following alleged issues with publisher, DC Comics. Fables, which served as the inspiration for Telltale video game franchise The Wolf Among Us, was first published in 2002, with Willingham at the helm for its entire two-decade run.
Willingham has alleged that much has changed since the series launched, particularly his publishing relationship with DC. In a statement posted to Substack, Willingham has claimed that previously, “the company was run by honest men and women of integrity who (for the most part) interpreted the details of [his first creator-owned publishing] agreement fairly and above-board.”
“Over the span of twenty years or so, [reasonable] people have left or been fired, to be replaced by a revolving door of strangers, of no measurable integrity, who now choose to interpret every facet of our contract in ways that only benefit DC Comics and its owner companies,” Willingham said.
“At one time the Fables properties were in good hands, and now, by virtue of attrition and employee replacement, the Fables properties have fallen into bad hands.”
Willingham alleges that his relationship with DC Comics has now completely broken down, following a range of issues. The creator believes DC has “always been in violation of [its] agreements” and further alleged that the company was “often late reporting royalties, and often under-report said royalties” and that it “they tried to strong arm the ownership of Fables” away from him.
Willingham also alleged that DC Comics believed “they could do whatever they wanted with the property” including changing characters, plots, and story in adaptations like The Wolf Among Us – and that this led to major disagreements, as Willingham’s original contract states he is the sole owner-creator of Fables, with creative control over the series.
Frustrations have inspired Willingham to relinquish the rights to Fables entirely, with the creator stating the franchise is now officially in the public domain, meaning anyone can create derivative works inspired by Fables and its many characters – which are, in turn, inspired by classic fairy tales.
For its part, DC has refuted this move, claiming it still owns the rights to Fables and its characters, and that it is not in the public domain, muddying the waters for those who may be inspired to create new works in the Fables franchise.
In a public statement sent to several media outlets, DC attempted to clarify the situation, while claiming it will “take action” as necessary, should the public domain issue be pressed:
“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. DC reserves all rights and will take such action as DC deems necessary or appropriate to protect its intellectual property rights.”
At this stage, it appears the rights to Fables aren’t quite cut-and-dry – so anyone looking to create within the Fables universe following Willingham’s statement should stay patient, and wait until the particulars of this case are sorted. It’s currently unclear if legal action will follow, but it does appear DC and Willingham share opposing views on the matter of the Fables publishing rights, and where it stands in the public domain.