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Publishing, Power, and Print Purgatory: Inside the Tokyopop Rights Situation

Tokyopop will not be reverting rights back to their creators of original content, and is in discussion with certain creators regarding contract buyouts, a source told the Comics Journal this week.

Tokyopop, which announced the closure of their publishing division on April 15th, typically worked with creators of their original content under a joint-trademark, joint-copyright basis, which many industry observers saw as unfairly balanced towards the company, and more controlling and exploitative than typical publishing industry contracts.

Tokyopop’s press release also announced that, despite the closure of the publishing divison, “TOKYOPOP film and television projects and European operations, including the German publishing program,” will remain open. Since Tokyopop’s founding in 1997 as Mixx, founder and CEO Stu Levy has been at the helm of dozens of non-publishing media ventures, both realized and unrealized, including Internet video and movie adaptations of original series, video games, stickers, coloring books, and even a reality television show.

So where does this news leave the projects of Tokyopop’s former cartoonists? According to a source formerly at Tokyopop, all but three of Tokyopop’s original series were created under either work-for-hire conditions, or with Tokyopop sharing trademark and copyright with the creators, effectively making the creators unable to reprint or continue their work without permission from Tokyopop.

M. Alice Legrow, the only Tokyopop OEL creator to have her project survive the Tokyopop downsizing of 2008, told TCJ last Friday that, as far as she knows, her series, Bizenghast, will conclude as scheduled this June with the publication of the series’ eighth and final volume. “They’re most likely going to print it up through their German brand and distribute it as usual,” she told TCJ. As far as the likelihood of her series falling out of print and into legal limbo, she stated that “in the contract it says if the company becomes insolvent, rights revert back to the artists,” and that “as far as I know,” the other creator’s contracts are “the same as mine.” She also stated that she hoped creators interested in regaining their shared copyright and trademark would reach out to Tokyopop CEO Stu Levy directly, rather than deriding him in blogs. “I see a lot of fussing about what he might say [regarding rights] without people bothering to ask,” she stated.

Other former Tokyopop creators, including Eisner-award nominee Ross Campbell, are not as hopeful about their chances of solely owning copyright to their work. “I’d love the rights back but as long as their headquarters and other offices and media stuff is active, I doubt I’ll ever get them back,” Campbell said. “I always figured that they were holding onto everyone’s rights partly so that even if they became insolvent or completely collapsed or whatever, that they could sell off the catalog of properties to another party and make a quick cash grab before they crashed and burned.” Campbell was one of several creators involved in high-profile disputes with Tokyopop over the past five years, in his case over his book The Abandoned, initially intended as a three-volume series, but cut back to one book after what Campbell believed was little to no promotion of the initial volume.

But, Campell says, his experience wasn’t all negative. “Looking back, I’m still glad I did the book with them even though they obviously didn’t care about it or know what to do with it (like a lot of the OEL stuff), but I knew what the contract was, they didn’t put a gun to my head, and at the time the benefits far outweighed the co-ownership/rights aspect,” he told TCJ via email. “I had no reason to believe things would go south like they did. I couldn’t have foreseen that they’d pull the plug.” Campbell still has some positive feelings regarding his time with the company. “Even though I have my own opinions about how they did business and how they treated their creators, I’ll always be grateful they gave me a shot [...] and paid me enough that I could move out of my parents’ house!” As of Wednesday Campbell had not yet been contacted by Tokyopop.

Queenie Chan, a former Tokyopop creator behind The Dreaming, had similar feels as to the opportunities the Tokyopop experience afforded her. “Living in Australia, I didn’t have many (indeed, ANY) other path to being published,” she told TCJ. “So I signed that contract, because I wanted so much to be published, and I felt I had no other alternative. I went in with Eyes Wide Shut.”

from the Dreaming

“As for my relationship with TOKYOPOP, I was one of the few who got all three volumes of [my series] published [...], before moving onto my current work with Del Rey and Dean Koontz (for ‘Odd Thomas’). So I guess I benefited from that relationship due to luck and timing. While I wish things would have turned out differently, I must point out that my tenure with TOKYOPOP added to my resume, and acted almost like a springboard to other platforms.”

Like Campbell, Chan is also doubtful about the likelihood of regaining sole copyright and trademark, but for less nebulous reasons. She confirmed that “a movie IS in development for The Dreaming, with a director attached (Australian Cate Woods, who made ‘Looking for Alibrandi’). I haven’t kept track of the details as of late, but for that reason alone, I can’t imagine TOKYOPOP wanting to let go of the property.” She also notes that, when discussing the original manga released by Tokyopop, “you can’t neglect the International market. ‘The Dreaming’ also has French, Italian, Spanish, Brazilian, Russian, Finnish, Serbian, Indonesian, Turkish, etc versions, and I was even invited to Istanbul for a week-long promotion trip. So foreign publishers seem to be doing fine – it’s really the English-language rights that are in contention here.” She was unsure as to “why TOKYOPOP didn’t capitalize on that more. Given their connections in the International Book Marketplace, they could have continued to have a bold and defining presence, and profit off that. I really don’t know what went wrong.”

East Coast Rising creator Becky Cloonan may know. She wrote in a recent blog post about “how they stopped being a publisher and started being an IP [intellectual property] hoarder.” Cloonan, who had the second book of her series canceled after she was two-thirds of the way through it, states in the post that “I never felt like I was important to the company, and that on the whole, my book didn’t matter. I didn’t feel looked after. And I guess my feelings were justified when they canceled my book with no warning. I even went to their office for a meeting to try and get the print rights back, or just get them to print it again- well I bet you can guess what answer I got.”

She lays the blame at the feet of Tokyopop’s founder. “If Stu Levy wanted to make a media company, I feel like he should have started it that way instead of trying to get into movies and other media through comics. That notion has always seemed backwards to me- if you want to make a movie, fucking just make a movie! It might not be easy, but it makes a lot more sense than making comics to make movies. That’s like making cookies and hoping they will turn into a cake in the oven!”

M. Alice Legrow disagrees with this characterization of Levy, and sees him instead as an artist who “wants to be in 900 places at once. It’s hard being the boss when you have a creative mind, when you’re supposed to have all these awesome creative ideas at the same time you’re supposed to be level and practical.” She also sees the cross-platform deals and interest in other media in a more benign light. “Tokyopop tried to turn people into real stars. They wanted to treat their artists like celebrities, getting their name out. But we wanted to be treated as artists, not celebrities.”

Another former Tokyopop associate, speaking on condition of anonymity, believes that the closure of Tokyopop’s publishing division, and its seemingly inexplicable publishing decisions, are much simpler than they may seem on the surface. “Tokyopop did not die because of pirating or because of Borders,” the source said. “It died because Stu was sick of being a publisher. He wanted to be a celebrity — and that meant pouring more and more of the company’s money into his personal projects — projects that no one wanted. When no one wanted his ideas, he made sure he poured even more money into promoting his stuff, so that they could at least look somewhat like a hit, if only for a short time.”

At least one other former Tokyopop creator is fairly confident that his book will live on in print– King City author Brandon Graham told TCJ that he and Image, his current publisher, have been in continuing discussions with Tokyopop regarding a deal on King City. “I seem to have gotten away with more than the rest of the artists,” he said. He believes this is primarily because he has a publisher to advocate for him that doesn’t care about media rights. “Image doesn’t take away rights or anything like that. It’s no skin off their backs,” he said. He is less confident about a successful resolution for other artists, and points to what he sees as inexplicable decisions made by the company in the past, including their decision to cancel Becky Cloonan’s book. “[Printing a Becky Cloonan book]‘s like printing comic book money,” he said.

Whatever the motivations of its CEO, whatever terms end up being negotiated, it seems clear that at least some of the rights to some books will return to their creators. As for the remainder of the books, are they doomed to remain in publication purgatory, wandering the afterlife as failed video game tie-ins and glossy sticker subjects, never to return to their creators or to print, to the medium from which they were spawned?

That, it would seem, is up to Stu Levy.

(When contacted for this story, a Tokyopop representative responded that the company “should have some news on this front in the next couple of weeks.”)

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3 Responses to Publishing, Power, and Print Purgatory: Inside the Tokyopop Rights Situation

  1. aomeng says:

    You know, I'd feel sorry for Mr Levy if he didn't have that twitter feed

    "Why have I been stuck in such an old-school, out-of-touch industry for so long?! (yes I mean books!)"

    he's like an anti-kanye

  2. Pingback: Warren Ellis » Bookmarks for 2011-04-29

  3. Pingback: Fleen: Home Of The Webcomics Action News Team! » Well, This Is Depressing

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