Sonic Sez: Keep track of your copyright

It's a brand new world for Sonic the Hedgehog.

Sega's star video game mascot has had a rough couple of years, or decades, but it looks like the blue blur is really taking strides lately to return to the spotlight.

Later this year, "Sonic Mania" will release, promising classic Sonic fans the game they've wanted since 1994. And next year, "Sonic Forces," looks to be a potentially stellar entry in the modern side of the franchise, which has seen more misses than hits.

Sadly, not all fronts of Sonic media are on the rise. After a 24 year near-continuous run, the Sonic the Hedgehog comic book has been on a suspicious hiatus since January. Publisher Archie Comics is no longer taking subscriptions and there is concern that the entire comic line has been canceled, which would mark the end of the longest running video game based comic.

One might think that the ending of a comic based on a 90's icon is simply the natural order of things. After all, even though Sonic has enjoyed unmatched success in the medium for a video game character, comic sales are down across the board from decades past. It wouldn't be shocking to learn that the numbers just aren't there anymore.

But while declining sales may be named as a factor if the book is ultimately canceled, it will be far from the only reason.

A much more likely contributor to the book's uncertain future are the legal entanglements that have happened behind the scenes over the last decade.

Ironically, the catalyst of the comics downfall begins with the man responsible for much of its success, artist and writer, Ken Penders. Penders began contributing to the comic in 1994, eventually becoming the main writer for the comic through the height of its popularity before leaving the title in 2006. During his years on the book, Penders exponentially expanded the scope of Sonic's world, creating near countless characters and back stories as he built an elaborate mythology out of the barebones setting that the video games gave him to work with.

However, once Penders left, a question arose about who exactly owned that elaborate mythology.

In 2009, Penders filed for copyright protection for the stories, characters, and settings he had created while writing for Archie Comics. Penders and Archie Comics filed lawsuits against each other, each trying to definitively gain the legal rights to that work.

From Penders' point of view, while he was working with already established characters like Sonic, Tales, and Knuckles, the characters he created to share those adventures were his own and he is entitled to all the rights that go with that ownership.

On the other side, Archie Comics claimed that Penders was contracted for "work for hire," meaning that Penders doesn't own the characters he created anymore than the painter owns the paint on the side of your house.

It's a familiar argument between publishers and creators, one that has gone on for decades as copyright law slowly but surely establishes who is entitled to what. In the golden and silver age of comics, writers, artists, and publishers played fast and loose with contracts, never considering that the spandex clad super heroes they were creating would become billion dollar properties. When ownership became an issue, it became a big issue.

DC Comics, for instance, fought a multi-year legal battle with the estates of Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel for the right to continue using Superboy. Not Superman, just the younger version of the character.

Meanwhile at Marvel, the heirs of legendary artist Jack Kirby nearly went to the Supreme Court in their legal battle to claim rights to some of Marvel's most famous characters before a settlement was reached.

In the case of Ken Penders and Archie Comics, the lawsuit was less of a thrilling legal drama and more like an episode of "Night Court." Sega, the licensor of the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise, showed no interest in entangling themselves in Archie Comic's legal troubles, to the frustration of everybody involved, including a judge who described the situation as "a fine mess." Meanwhile, Archie Comic's legal team was unable to produce a contract proving that Penders was "work for hire."

In 2013 the case was settled in Penders' favor and Archie Comics handled the loss maturely and in a way that would result in the best case scenario for everybody.

I'm kidding.

They hastily wrote in a wave of retcons that erased more than 200 characters from the continuity, eliminating any trace of Penders' work from the book, along with any legally ambiguous work from other creators, so as not to trip any more legal contests.

Still, the book persisted with its new continuity. At least up until recently.

Archie Comics' silence about the future of Sonic has been deafening, with many wondering if the legal fiasco has soured the relationship between them and Sega.

If it has, that would be a shame. The Sonic the Hedgehog comic has been a constant presence for fans of both video games and comic books for nearly a quarter century.

One can only hope that streak continues.

Travis Fischer is a news writer for Mid-America Publishing and enjoys copyright law as much as speedy blue hedgehogs.