H.G. Wells’s Copyright Set to Expire

I have served as Webmaster for the H.G. Wells Society since 2002. One of my responsibilities is to forward email inquiries to the society secretary for consideration and distribution. I’ve seen a lot of different kinds of inquiries through the years, but for a time, one appeared more frequently than all others: copyright.

The copyright protecting H.G. Wells’s work in Britain and the EU was once so obscure and confusing to the general inquirer that a special webpage was expanded around 2005 to better address the issue, and was inspired partly by a controversy I was involved in regarding film versions of The War of the Worlds that were in production around that time.

While copyright on much of H.G. Wells’s work has expired in the United States, for the EU and other territories throughout the world, it remains the date of the author’s death plus 70 years (through the end of the calendar year). In Wells’s case, of course this is 31st December 2016, since he left us on 13th August 1946.

Until now, filmmakers have needed to obtain permission from the Wells estate, via agents A.P. Watt, to release films in protected regions. While the motion picture world is the big money customer, I have seen other inquiries for things as unusual as The War of the Worlds-themed gambling machines!

Beyond the motion picture world, other kinds of presentations, such as musical versions or plays were allowed through obtaining dramatic rights.

Of course H.G. Wells’s oeuvre remains a popular font of ideas for filmmakers, whether they intend to make movies or TV shows based directly on his books, or simply borrow characters for a 21st century romp.

While I personally have rarely been satisfied or impressed by the intellectual content of the recent Wellsian reboots and palimpsests, as we approach the end of the calendar year of Wells’s death, I think it’s appropriate to say, for better and worse, I expect things will get interesting…

5 Comments

  1. I've never managed to fully understand the complexities of US copyright, with changes to the law at different times over the course of the 20th century – and the ability to renew copyright at different times – but my understanding is that *some* of Wells's work remains in copyright in the United States. This website seems to bear this out: http://www.publicdomainsherpa.com/copyright-restoration.html – though I do not assert its trustworthiness over your own. How far are you able to explain the American copyright riddle to the humble scholar abroad?

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  2. After thinking I had this one figured out this afternoon, I find myself wrestling with it again. According to "Nimmer on Copyright" (Melville Nimmer and David Nimmer, 2013 edition), section §9A.04[A], the comprehensive analysis and 'most cited work in the field,' restoration is intended for "works that are not in the public domain of their source country through the expiration of the term of protection but are not protected in the United States" (§9A.04[A][1][a]). This would seemingly not apply to a high-profile author like H.G. Wells. There's also this link to a Cornell site, which indicates that works published from 1923-1963 with copyright notice – but not renewed – are now public domain. That's a big "but" that perhaps A.P. Watt might want to address. It does seem ludicrous to me that the US would continue restored domestic copyright on a work whose country of origin copyright has expired after its proper term (post 1996)…then again, nothing would surprise me over here: http://copyright.cornell.edu/resources/publicdomain.cfmClearly annotated editions or editions with updates or special prefaces, etc., would receive copyright protection from their particular date of publication, even if the original Wellsian text had fallen into public domain. Could that be why domainsherpa listed "A Short History of the World" with its G.P. Wells and Raymond Postgate updates?All the same, me not being a lawyer or presenting any of this as legal advice, a conservative approach should be taken.Thoughts?

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  3. I did recently look into the issue of the US copyrights on the Wells film "scripts," i.e. 'The King Who Was a King' and the "Film Stories" of 'Things to Come', 'The Man Who Could Work Miracles', and 'The New Faust'. All four were diligently registered with the US Copyright Office at the time of their first publication, but only the first two were renewed towards the end of the first 28 year copyright term. As I understand it, that means they remain in copyright until 95 after publication, while the second two entered the public domain 28 years after their original publication.

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