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.

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