Has Archie Lost Rights to Sonic Reprints?

Ken Penders wrote a number of Sonic the Hedgehog stories for Archie Comics, beginning with #11 and ending with #159, when the lead writer role was taken over by Ian Flynn. He spent over a decade on this licensed comic, one that is popular among certain audiences while being overlooked by many comic fans.

Ken Penders
(Image from Kotaku.com)

Last week, Penders posted a statement on his website that claims he has filed for, and received, copyright over the stories he wrote and characters he created. To quote his post:

I am now officially recognized by the U.S. Government as the owner of every single SONIC and KNUCKLES story I ever created (well, almost every one right now, but it will be “all” shortly, as soon as the Copyright Office finishes with the last few claims. But I digress…).

What does this mean?

That means anyone seeking to use my characters, concepts and stories that were published in the pages of SONIC THE HEDGEHOG, various SONIC 48-page specials, various issues of SONIC SUPER SPECIALS, the PRINCESS SALLY mini-series, the SONIC’S FRIENDLY NEMESIS KNUCKLES mini-series, KNUCKLES THE DARK LEGION and the KNUCKLES THE ECHIDNA series, must first contact me for permission and to make arrangements for the use of this material.

He has not granted this permission to Archie.

As for how it affects the SONIC THE HEDGEHOG titles published by Archie Comics, while it does not prevent them from publishing the SONIC series, they are not allowed to use any of my characters, concepts or stories without further discussion with my representatives. For now, they cannot reprint any of my stories in any media whatsoever, nor can they use any of my characters. Julie-Su, Geoffrey St. John, Hershey, Rob O’ the Hedge, Lien-Da, the Dark Legion along with the rest of the characters and concepts I created — including the alternative universes and future timeline — cannot appear in the series. Every story since issue #160 that features my characters and concepts is essentially unauthorized, as I did not grant Archie Comics the right to use my creations for their benefit without compensation to me.

Penders claims that the reprints of his work are thus illegal to sell.

At this time, anyone distributing and selling copies of SONIC ARCHIVES Nos. 3 through 13, SONIC SELECT Nos. 1 and 2, as well as any of the latest issues of SONIC THE HEDGEHOG and SONIC UNIVERSE that feature my characters in any way, shape or form will be asked to cease and desist or else risk facing the consequences. This includes any version of said material, which also includes my original works, which sees release in any format beyond the original published comic books, including but not limited to digital downloads. (Yes, the iTunes and iPhones stores distributing my stories are currently infringing my copyrights, and are in the process of being made aware of this infringement.)

I wonder if he’s contacted Diamond yet to stop distribution? Penders is working on new stories featuring “his” characters, saying that while he can’t use Sonic or Knuckles, “there are plenty of stories to be told with the cast I already have created, and there is a sizable audience for those stories.”

It will be interesting to see what Archie’s lawyers make of this. Current writer Flynn has posted a response that says, “The Archie legal department is handling things. I’ve been told to keep writing as usual and to continue with our plans for the end of 2010/start of 2011.” The area of character copyright, in particular, is still confusing legally, since copyright normally protects stories, not ideas.

Earlier this year, Penders had criticized the work of both his successor Flynn and editor, claiming that they were using his outlines and ideas. Flynn says they didn’t. At his bulletin board (link no longer available), Penders asserted that, “Unless a company explicitly acquires the rights from a creator, all spelled out in detail and agreed by both parties, all a company acquires is first usage rights and nothing beyond that.” That’s far from standard practice in the comic field, and given Archie’s history in this field, I can’t imagine that their contracts don’t resolve character creation and story ownership in their favor.

Fan reaction is predictably livid, calling Penders “childish” and “bitter”, because they don’t like the idea of anything that ruins their stories or affects the comic they like. (This one’s more exaggerated.) I think I’m most surprised by just how many Sonic fan forums there are out there.

18 Responses to “Has Archie Lost Rights to Sonic Reprints?”

  1. Mikester Says:

    I suspect Sega probably has an opinion on this matter.

  2. Johanna Says:

    Fans were posting on some of the threads that they’d spoken to Penders at conventions and heard him say that everything he did belonged to Sega. If it comes to legal action before a judge and one of them says that on the witness stand, I’d say game over.

  3. James Schee Says:

    I’ll be curious to see how this goes. It is sort of weird to think that someone could come onto a licensed property and do work on it and then turn around and claim its his. If that’s true, then wow I honestly don’t know how they’d hired someone to write a story in work for hire situation. When every bystander or the like can be claimed as ownership.

    It sort of reminds me of the lawsuit a few years back where the producer behind a good portion of the James Bond movies tried to claim he owned the character not Ian Fleming’s estate.

  4. Johanna Says:

    Well, there are the occasional cases — someone, not the BBC, owns the Daleks from Doctor Who, for example, or the Thunderball Bond movie being different from the others (which is how they could make Never Say Never Again from a different company) — but they’re the exception, not the rule. Most times, the owner of the licensed property has set things up so that they own all the stories they hire people to write.

    I hope we hear what happens next with this.

  5. James Schee Says:

    Its so weird to see such a long running comic character that I know nothing about. So I’m not entirely sure what the exact circumstances and such with creation are. I’ve played a Sonic video game for about an hour once but that’s it.

    I saw in one of the threads you linked to that Pender brings up the lack of royalties that is Archie’s standard practice in comparison to DC & Marvel who do. So he’s hoping to help others if he wins this.

    Its one of those clinical situations for me, not knowing anything about the characters, books or creators. So I don’t have a dog in the fight so to speak to root for, I just want to see how it goes.

  6. David Bailey Says:

    I am going to buy sonic archives right freaking now. This is the EXACT situation that creates a cashcow product for collectors later.

  7. Johanna Says:

    If you want to do that and support this site, use this Amazon link. You’re right, legal trouble can make product hard to find (especially at reasonable prices), but I’m not sure any distributor or retailer would take Penders’ claims seriously enough to cease sales at this point.

  8. Thad Says:

    Ho-lee crap. I’ve been out of Sonic fandom for a long time; hadn’t heard anything about this.

    It’s no surprise that Penders would butt heads with Sega and Archie (he used to frequently complain about the restrictions they placed on his stories and art), but his claim seems pretty unlikely here — neither Archie nor Sega are particularly well-known for allowing creators copyrights over their characters. (I remember Sega once tried to argue that original characters created for Sonic fanfics belonged to them — a pretty ludicrous claim, but obviously the difference between Penders and a fanfic writer is that Penders signed a contract.)

    I’m rooting for Ken but I think he’s tilting at windmills on this one.

    Wonder what Dan Drazen has to say — last I checked (which, admittedly, was years ago), he was the Sonic fan most likely to Know His Stuff. If he’s still involved in the community I’m betting he’s done some research on this.

  9. David Bailey Says:

    Thanks for that Johanna. I actually already ordered two. It is true that this may not play out to make a collectors item, but man how awesome it will be if it does.

  10. Ex-Sonic writer claims rights to his stories, character | Robot 6 @ Comic Book Resources – Covering Comic Book News and Entertainment Says:

    […] Draper Carlson, from whom I first heard about this story, has an excellent post putting the whole thing into context; Pender had criticized the work of his successor, Ian Flynn. […]

  11. Business of Comics LinkBlogging » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    […] Robot6′s coverage of the Ken Penders Sonic copyright story, they mention that they asked Archie Comics for comment and got back this short statement from Mike […]

  12. Charles RB Says:

    Ian Flynn has also stated that his contract w/ Archie is the industry standard: http://www.bumbleking.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=2830

    The chances of Penders having a different contract are… well, I don’t even need to finish the sentence, right?

  13. Jim Perreault Says:

    Reminds me a bit of Marvel still selling Space Knights comics, even though they no longer have the rights to ROM.

    Way different situation, though.

  14. Torsten Adair Says:

    Hoo boy…
    Sega/Archie, if they really wanted to be … lawerly about this, could sue Mr. Penders for any unauthorized fan art he has produced of Sonic (for example, that painting in the photo).

    However, all they need to do is produce the contracts, get a court ruling, and contact the Copyright Office.

    Meanwhile, Mr. Pender has burned a few bridges… professionally, what publisher would hire him; popularly, what Sonic fans would talk to him?

    As a bookseller, I know how popular Sonic is. Not my cuppa, but how many comics series have hit the bicentennial milestone? How many kids’ comics? How many based on a video game? Sonic might just become the Doraemon of American comics… a gateway for new young readers into comics and videogames.

  15. Penpen2nd Says:

    “Sega/Archie,.. could sue Mr. Penders for any unauthorized fan art he has produced of Sonic (for example, that painting in the photo).”

    Actually that painted picture is the cover for the Sonic the Hedgehog Complete Series Dvd that was released by Shout Factory a few years back.


  16. Atomic Kommie Comics Says:

    “…someone, not the BBC, owns the Daleks from Doctor Who”

    Actually, British copyright law is different regarding collaborative works/shared universes.
    Since Terry Nation created the Daleks and wrote their first appearance (“The Daleks”) on Doctor Who, he retained copyright to both the storyline and the Daleks themselves, as well as Skaro, the Thals, etc. (though not to the Doctor and other already-created characters).
    Neither could be used without both a credit line and payment to him. And, of course, he profited from the Dalekmania craze of the late 1960s…
    Note: Alan Moore was able to prevent DC and Marvel from reprinting some of his British comics material since it fell under the same copyright laws.

  17. Charles RB Says:

    And IIRC, the BBC creates all the new Who monsters in-house and then gives them to writers so the same thing won’t happen.

  18. Archie Promotes Sonic; No Legal Problems » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    […] the light of claims that a former writer had reclaimed copyrights over a number of Sonic characters and stories, I found this press release last week from Archie […]




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