Once More Into the Thickets

James Maliszewski of Grognardia ran into troubles of his own when he tried to produce an RPG based on the settings of pulp fictioneer Clark Ashton Smith. The obstacle, however, wasn’t Smith’s estate — in fact, William Dorman, Smith’s stepson and director of CASiana Literary Enterprises, signed off on the project. The problems began when Maliszewski tried to include excerpts from Smith’s stories in the game rulebook:

I wrote to Mr Dorman to make certain this was acceptable and received word from him that CASiana has an “understanding” with the publisher Arkham House. This understanding is such that, while CASiana may be Smith’s literary executor, it makes no claim to holding the copyright to Smith’s actual literary texts. Instead, Arkham House makes that claim and, if I wanted to include any text from Smith’s stories, I’d need to contact Arkham House.

Naturally, I did. April Derleth, daughter of the company’s founder, directed me to someone else, who acted as Arkham House’s “literary agent” or some similar title. I can’t recall the man’s name, but I did get in touch with him. He and I exchange some letters and emails before eventually coming down to brass tacks about the cost of securing the rights to Smith’s texts for an RPG. Needless to say, the cost involved was higher than I could justify given the likely return and so, unhappily, I reported this back to the interested publisher. There was brief talk of negotiating for a better deal, but, in the end, all concerned knew it’d hardly be worth it, as this would be a niche product.

Apparently Dorman also told Maliszewski that both CASiana and Arkham House use the same agent (the one I quote throughout this post) because the two entities have a “shared interest in copyright.” Since Smith himself took part in assembling at least three of Arkham House’s collections — Out of Time and Space, Lost Worlds, and A Rendezvous in Averoigne — Arkham House has maintained the copyright of these slightly different texts, whereas the original versions that appeared in Weird Tales are most certainly in the public domain. Recall that the agent stated:

Also note that some of the earliest of CAS’ published works may be considered in public domain, and Wildside (Prime is a part of Wildside) do unfortunately take advantage of this.

Which is a clear admission that neither party has ownership of the copyright to these early versions.

It’s interesting that on the copyright page to Necronomicon Press’s 1995 collection Tales of Zothique, Arkham House is never mentioned. Instead, editor Will Murray used Smith’s original manuscripts archived at Brown University. When, in a few cases, the originals were absent, the Weird Tales versions were used. There is also this:

Of invaluable help also was William Dorman, representative of the Estate of Clark Ashton Smith, without whose enthusiasm and support this project would have never seen the light. … All items reprinted by permission of CASiana, the Estate of Clark Ashton Smith.

So my advice to anyone seeking to do what James and I failed to accomplish: communicate with Dorman solely; bypass Arkham House and the joint agent completely; and, if reprinting Smith’s texts, use the Weird Tales versions.

Averoigne Addendum

A reader of my post about Clark Ashton Smith responded that since works published between 1923 and 1963 had to be renewed with the Copyright Office 28 years after their original publication — which the authors or heirs often failed to do — many of the old Weird Tales stories are now in public domain and have been for decades. This would mean, for example, that “The End of the Story,” Smith’s first Averoigne tale published in May 1930, has been in public domain since 1959.

Maybe. Within reach I have a Ballantine/Del Rey paperback of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness and Other Tales of Terror, 14th printing, June 1988 (with the Michael Whelan cover). The front matter copyrights it 1939, 1943 by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, then again in 1964 by August Derleth, followed by the statement: “This edition published by arrangement with Arkham House.”

When and even if Smith’s stuff entered public domain is irrelevant to my point. My point is that Arkham House consistently kept Lovecraft’s work in paperback but not Smith’s — and that’s why Smith is not as well known today.

While writing my initial post, I contacted Robert Weinberg, editor of the Smith collection The Return of the Sorcerer. I asked Mr. Weinberg what versions he used for his omnibus — did he take them from Weird Tales, and if so, was it because those stories are in the public domain? Or did he license them from Wildside Press? I assumed that because Wildside publishes the modern incarnation of Weird Tales that they owned the back catalog as well. I was wrong:

Wildside does not own Weird Tales. Wildside licenses the Weird Tales name for a fee, and pays Weird Tales for reprinting stories that are not in public domain.

The copyright law extends back to 1923 which is when Weird Tales began publishing. While it is true that some Clark Ashton Smith stories have fallen into public domain because of lack of effort by [Smith’s literary executor], a number of stories are still protected by copyright. Arkham House does retain control over many Smith stories.

Relying on [Smith’s literary executor] for information on what is in public domain and what is protected by copyright is a sure way to get into serious trouble.

For the record, I owned Weird Tales until just recently. It is now owned by a major entertainment corporation. They have indicated to me they intend to protect their copyrights very strictly and have the legal muscle to do just that.

Presumably said major corporation is Paradox Entertainment — though I could be wrong again. Weinberg had one more piece of advice for me:

I would drop plans for a Smith collection if I was you.

No worries there. I threw up my hands in disgust after talking with Smith’s representative. If his own estate doesn’t give a shit about Smith’s material, why should I?

Wildside does not own Weird Tales.  Wildside licenses the Weird Tales name for a feee, and pays Weird Tales for reprinting stories that are not in public domain.

The copyright law extends back to 1923 which is when Weird Tales began publishing.  While it is true that some Clark Ashton Smith stories have fallen into public domain because of lack of effort by Mr. Bilmes, a number of stories are still protected by copyright.  Arkham House does retain control over many Smith stories.

relying on Mr. Bilmes for information on what is in public domain and what is protected by copyright is a sure way to get into serious trouble.

for the record, I owned Weird Tales until just recently.  It is now owned by a major entertainment corporation.  They have indicated to me they intend to protect their copyrights very strictly and have the legal muscle to do just that.

I would drop plans for a Smith collection if I was you.

The Obscurity of Clark Ashton Smith

The 117th anniversary of Clark Ashton Smith’s birth last week was marked by The Cimmerian (here, here, and here), Grognardia, Black Gate, and others with accolades and remembrances. As well it should. Smith, along with Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft, formed the weird fiction triptych of the 1920s and ’30s — and in my opinion, he was the most talented member of a talented group. Yet a recurring question in many of these memorials is why Smith remains uncelebrated in comparison to his partners. This is especially vexing when you consider he outlived the other two by almost a quarter-century.

Answer: Because Smith’s estate has kept him unknown.

Lovecraft and Howard are popular today because we have had a full generation grow up with easy access to inexpensive volumes of their work. Lovecraft’s writing has been in paperback fairly consistently since the 1970s; Del Rey alone has been printing his stuff since the mid-1980s. Howard’s legacy, while certainly boosted by Marvel’s Conan comics, is due in large part to the Lancer/Ace mass-market paperbacks of the ’60s and ’70s with their wonderful Frazetta and Vallejo covers.

Smith’s work, alas, has never been managed as well.

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