Julie Harris-Hulcher


The literary works of American author Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937) have inspired the creation of a "shared world" of related works by dozens of Lovecraft's friends, fellow authors and fans. Of course, many other such shared worlds exist, especially in the realms of science-fiction and fantasy. But one of the most unusual, yet least-examined, aspects of the Lovecraftian shared world -- which is frequently called the Cthulhu Mythos -- is the extent to which it has flourished by apparently eschewing the intellectual-property protections that authors and other artists call upon to defend their works.

This raises the question of whether the success of the Cthulhu Mythos is an argument for the re-examination, and relaxation, of intellectual-property laws that could restrain the development of similar shared worlds; or whether it is an "exception that proves the rule" that strong intellectual-property protections are vital to encourage the continued creation of literary works. To examine this question, this paper will first describe the development of the Cthulhu Mythos. Next it will consider the nature of the intellectual-property norms that this particular world ignores. Finally, it will try to sort out whether the success of the Lovecraftian shared universe poses a credible challenge to the world of intellectual property as we know it.

Answering "The Call of Cthulhu"

In 1926, Lovecraft wrote "The Call of Cthulhu," in which the impending resurrection of an alien monster (who has apparently godlike powers, an octopus-like appearance, and the intentionally unpronounceable name -- Cthulhu) provokes strange dreams, madness and cult activity worldwide among those humans susceptible to its influence. The story was published in Weird Tales magazine in 1928, and ever since Cthulhu has in reality had a hold over the imaginations of susceptible readers and fans. Lovecraft's stories of Cthulhu and related monsters have spawned a vast brood of derivative works by other artists, ranging from short stories and novels to role-playing games, T-shirts, Lovecraftian films (both amateur and professional), Tarot cards, sculptures and Web sites. Some of these works are very far from Lovecraft's original ideas, as will be discussed at the end of this section.

Chris Jarocha-Ernst provides a succinct explanation of the Cthulhu Mythos in the preface to his A Cthulhu Mythos Bibliography & Concordance:

In the world of the Cthulhu Mythos, alien beings known to us only as the Great Old Ones came to this planet eons ago and ruled. Through unknowable events (some claim a cosmic war with opposing entities, some merely a time of rest), these beings lost their hold and are now either asleep, somehow restricted to certain areas, or located elsewhere in time and space. Here on Earth, primal memories of these beings gave birth to many of humanity's diverse mythologies, and the Great Old Ones were revered as gods. As always, there were those who would exchange their very souls for a taste of terrestrial power and dared to record their rites in blasphemous books; so the worship of the Great Old Ones began and so it continues, in secrecy to this day. Occasionally, an innocent learns the horrendous truths behind the sheer veil of reality and glimpses the ultratelluric chasms that exist, unknown to most, beneath our mundane existence. The Cthulhu Mythos stories chronicle the adventures of such unfortunates, frequently in as high-blown a style as that used in the latter sentences of this paragraph. (vi)

One question that quickly arises when contemplating the extent of the Cthulhu Mythos is when Lovecraft's stories entered or will enter the public domain. Unfortunately, there is as yet no satisfactory answer. After Lovecraft's death, his friends August Derleth and Donald Wandrei founded Arkham House to preserve his fiction in book form. Arkham House and Derleth (who was the more active partner in the publishing venture) laid claim to rights to Lovecraft's work, although it is not clear whether they had the legal right to do so. As S.T. Joshi, a leading Lovecraft scholar, says in his 1996 biograpy H.P. Lovecraft: A Life, "This is an extraordinarily complicated situation and has yet to be resolved . . .," but he believes that Derleth's control of the rights to Lovecraft's work "is almost certainly fictitious." (640) After a page and a half of discussion of the legal details, Joshi concludes:

The true fact of the matter is that much of Lovecraft's work is in the public domain. This is unquestionably so in terms of the tales, essays, and poems published in the amateur press. . . . Of the stories Lovecraft himself controlled, by law only he, his heirs, or his executor could have renewed the copyright, but this was never done. Derleth probably knew that he had no legal right to renew the copyrights, so he tried to throw a smokescreen by declaring that the copyrights for his various collections applied to the stories; but this is manifestly not the case. Arkham House also published a good deal of Lovecraft material for the first time, the copyright status of which is very murky. (641)

However, others still seem to accept that Lovecraft's stories are still protected by copyright. For example, according to the LitGothic site online, the H.P. Lovecraft Library Web site "makes available all the e-texts of Lovecraft's works that are in the public domain -- and with the recent (October 1998) change in copyright law, there will be no additional Lovecraft texts becoming public domain until 2018." (quoted at) The H.P. Lovecraft Library site posts several stories, but none that were originally published after 1922. Thus, the creator of this site, William Johns, considers "The Call of Cthulhu" and many other major stories as still under copyright. (However, he does quote Joshi to raise the question of whether all of Lovecraft's work should be considered public domain.)

Finally, according to Peter Ruber, the current editor of Arkham House, a cache of letters obtained in June 1998 contains "the details of the Derleth-Wandrei acquisition of Lovecraft's literary estate." (28) However, it is not clear from the essay in which he discusses these letters, "The Un-Demonizing of August Derleth," whether information in these letters contradicts Joshi's view about Lovecraft's copyrights.

Whatever the copyright status of Lovecraft's works is now, the growth of the Mythos certainly began while they were under copyright. (According to Joshi, Lovecraft published many of his earliest works in amateur-press magazines, which put them immediately into the public domain. When Lovecraft began selling stories to such magazines as Weird Tales, he apparently at first let all the rights go with them. Later he learned better, and by the time he wrote "The Call of Cthulhu," he was reserving second-publication and later rights for himself.) Other authors' use of the Cthulhu Mythos began during Lovecraft's lifetime; indeed, he fostered it. Lovecraft encouraged his friends to use elements from his stories in their own work; he inserted elements from his own fiction into stories that he revised or essentially wrote for paying clients; and he also incorporated elements from his friends' stories into his own writings. A letter he wrote in 1930 to Robert E. Howard (an author best-known as the creator of Conan the Barbarian) explains how the process worked:

Regarding the solemnly cited myth-cycle of Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, R'lyeh, Nyarlathotep, Nug, Yeb, Shub-Nigguroth, etc., etc. -- let me confess that this is all a synthetic concoction of my own. . . . The reason for its echoes in Dr. de Castro's work is that the latter gentleman is a revision-client of mine -- into whose tales I have stuck these glancing references for sheer fun. If any other clients of mine get work placed in W.T. [Weird Tales], you will perhaps find a still-wider spread of the cult of Azathoth, Cthulhu, and the Great Old Ones! The Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred is likewise something which must yet be written in order to possess objective reality. . . . Long [author Frank Belknap Long] has alluded to the Necronomicon in some things of his -- in fact, I think it is rather good fun to have this artificial mythology given an air of verisimilitude by wide citation. I ought, though, to write to Mr. O'Neail and disabuse him of the idea that there is a large blind spot in his mythological erudition! Clark Ashton Smith is launching another mock mythology revolving around the black, furry toad-god Tsathoggua. . . . I am using Tsathoggua in several tales of my own and of revision-clients -- although Wright [Farnsworth Wright, editor of Weird Tales] rejected the Smith tale in which he originally appeared. It would be amusing to identify your Kathulos with my Cthulhu -- indeed, I may so adopt him in some future black allusion. (Selected Letters III, 166-67)

Lovecraft's idea of giving his "artificial mythology" an "air of versimilitude by wide citation" has worked quite well. Like the Mr. O'Neail mentioned in this letter, many readers have been led to think that some elements of the Cthulhu Mythos are real. For example, Kenneth Grant, who claimed to be the "Outer Head" of the occult group the Ordo Templi Orientis believes that ". . . the superhuman being allegedly contacted by Aleister Crowley when he was Outer Head of the OTO was an extraterrestrial from Sirius. . . . (and) that Yog Sothoth and the other interstellar beings or powers in the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft are allegories on the entities contacted by Crowleyan magick." (Wilson, 212) Edward Berglund, a Cthulhu Mythos scholar, said of such beliefs: "Come on, guys! If you want to start your own religion, create your own gods!" (quoted online in "Interview With Edward Paul Berglund" by Allen Mackey)

And some readers have believed that another of the fictional elements mentioned in the quote above -- the Necronomicon, an invented book of evil magical lore and spells, is real. An interesting subset of Mythos fiction plays with the premise that although Lovecraft believed that he was writing fiction, and though his fans believe the stories are fiction, there is reality behind it. An example is Joseph S. Pulver Sr.'s novel Nightmare's Disciple, in which a serial killer's motive is to bring the return of the Great Old Ones; detectives on the case are helped in their investigation by the proprietors of a horror bookshop who are familiar with the Cthulhu Mythos.

Such borrowing and cross-pollination among friends continued through Lovecraft's life. And at times it went beyond borrowings from published works. For example, Lovecraft often got story ideas from his dreams; he also shared dreams with others in his letters, and at times, at least, he was not averse to having them use the dream in stories of their own. So he writes to Clark Ashton Smith, "By the way, I had a hell of a dream lately, which so impressed our young friend Bho-Blok that he's going to write a story around it."(Selected Letters IV, 272) (Bho-Blok was a nickname Lovecraft used for author Robert Bloch, of Psycho fame, who was 15 years old when he began corresponding with Lovecraft.)

And, Lovecraft wasn't averse to being treated as a fictional character himself at times. He even gave Bloch permission to kill him, as a character in the short story "The Shambler From the Stars." Later Lovecraft returned the favor, killing a character representing Bloch in his story "The Haunter of the Dark." As Lovecraft wrote to his friend August Derleth, "[Bloch] left the old gentleman [Lovecraft] spattered all over the room, but I leave him in neater shape -- as a body sitting rigidly at a desk and gazing out a west window, with an expression of unutterable fear on the twisted features." (Selected Letters V, 206)

All this was good fun among friends. After Lovecraft's death, however, the growth of the Mythos accelerated under the care of August Derleth, who actually originated the term "Cthulhu Mythos." Derleth is a complex figure who can be credited with preserving Lovecraft's fiction and bringing it into print, but who also has been accused of distorting Lovecraft's literary vision. Joshi devotes part of the final chapter of his Lovecraft: A Life to "what is perhaps the most disreputable phase of Derleth's activities: his promulgation of the 'Cthulhu Mythos.'" (638)

Joshi's point is that Derleth completely misunderstood the philosophy behind Lovecraft's work, which can be summed up as "Cosmic." Joshi quotes a letter that Lovecraft wrote to Farnsworth Wright, the editor of Weird Tales, when he resubmitted "The Call of Cthulhu" to that magazine:

Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large. . . . To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all. (Lovecraft: A Life, 402)

Though Lovecraft invented all sorts of "gods" in his stories, they are gods only to the extent that that is how humans interpret these powerful and alien beings. In reality, Lovecraft's stories make clear that Cthulhu and his ilk pursue their own mysterious ends without regard to how their actions will affect humanity. Their intentions toward humanity are neither good nor evil; they are indifferent to our species. According to Joshi, Derleth recast the Mythos as a struggle between good and evil, with a philosophical underpinning similar to Christianity. And his views were accepted by many readers and Cthulhu Mythos writers. Joshi sums up the situation this way:

The 'gods' in [Lovecraft's] tales are symbols of all that lies unknown in the boundless cosmos, and the randomness with which they can intrude violently into our own realm is a poignant reflexion of the tenuousness of our fleeting and inconsequential existence. Let it pass that his imitators have failed to perceive this symbolism, or felt content to play with unwitting frivolity with the varied mythic elements in his tales; these derivative treatments can have little effect on our valuation of Lovecraft. (653)

Although other scholars, such as Robert Price, have argued that Derleth's interpretation of the Mythos is not so misguided as Joshi and others say, it is still true that the Cthulhu Mythos we have today has wandered far from its Lovecraftian origins. The Mythos has taken on a life of its own -- or, more accurately, has been given a life of its own through the efforts of Lovecraft's friends while he was alive and admirers after his death. Even the use of Lovecraft as a fictional character has also continued, with Lovecraft and his real-life friends turning up as characters in such works as Richard Lupoff's novel Lovecraft's Book (which purports to be a true story -- complete with new information obtained under the Freedom of Information Act) and P.H. Cannon's novella Pulptime, in which Lovecraft teams up with Sherlock Holmes to solve a mystery.

This all has been to the public good -- adding to the amount of creative works produced -- the good that intellectual property laws are supposed to foster. The question is, could this sort of thing happen with other fictional worlds, and do our views on intellectual property need to be adjusted to make it easier for it to happen?

The Long Tentacles of the Law

Of course, this sort of thing does happen with other fictional worlds, but the Cthulhu Mythos is unusual. As Peter S. Beagle describes modern shared worlds in an article for Omni magazine, he begins with a brief description of the free-form development of the Cuthlhu Mythos, and contrasts it with the more usual process today, which is more structured: "A burgeoning phenomenon, today's shared worlds are specifically created by one or more writers, rather than by expanding on a previously developed world in someone else's work. The creators then recruit like-minded authors to contribute stories confined to the world's predetermined characteristics. . . ." (40)

But, as discussed earlier, Cthulhu Mythos writers are not bound by their world's "predetermined characteristics." As Chris Jarocha-Ernst writes in the preface to his Cthulhu Mythos Bibliography & Concordance,

What makes the Cthulhu Mythos unique, in my view, is that it had, and has, no central controlling source. Lovecraft . . . did not try to overrule anyone's contribution to this collective 'artificial mythology.' Lovecraft did not even have a name for what he was doing; the term "Cthulhu Mythos" was coined by August Derleth after HPL's death. As a result of this literary anarchy, Mythos references turn up in the oddest places . . . (vi-vii).

This "literary anarchy" is a form of intellectual freedom that could easily be overruled by zealous application of intellectual property laws. In essence, many of the stories that make up the Cthulhu Mythos as we know it today are a form of fan fiction. Calling them "fan fiction" is not meant to denigrate the literary quality of these works, which can be quite high. (Lovecraft has inspired some truly great writers. For example, some of Fred Chappell's works show the influence of Lovecraft. His short story "The Adder," to mention only one, is about modern-day destruction wrought by a copy of the Necronomicon.) And even stories that don't rise to the level of literature can provide a lot of pleasure to readers. It simply means that the later stories stand in the same relationship to Lovecraft's work as fans' Internet stories set in the "Xena-verse" stand to their inspiration -- the world developed on television's Xena: Warrior Princess. Such stories can also be of very high quality, but their creators realize that they are flirting with copyright infringement.

The intellectual-property protections afforded to fictional characters such as Xena or Cthulhu are complicated, involving copyright, trademark and unfair-competition laws. In a 1990 article in the California Law Review, David Feldman argued that the legal protection for fictional characters is inconsistent and that "Congress should amend the 1976 Copyright Act by creating an express subject matter category exclusively for fictional characters." (689) In 1992, Michael Todd Helfand found that courts have tended to merge copyright, trademark and unfair-competition laws when trying to protect fictional characters, with several bad consequences. Perhaps the worst is that the convergence of copyright, trademark and fair-use laws

will make public domain works unavailable for new expressive uses. By attaching a copyright scope of exclusivity to mark-based laws while retaining trademark's term of protection, a character owner can prevent unauthorized uses of a character in perpetuity. This nullifies the balance struck between copyright's broad protection and limited duration of exclusivity and trademark's narrow protection but unlimited duration of protection. (654)

Helfand suggests that to avoid this damaging convergence of intellectual-property laws, characters should be considered separately as marks and as copyrighted expressions. Then, once copyright protections expired, "mark-based laws might still apply but should not prevent expressive uses except in the rarest of situations," (673) thus allowing a character to be used in new works by others.

A third take on the issue of characters, copyright and fan fiction is offered by Rebecca Tushnet, who in 1997 argued that although "case law does not address fair use in the context of fan fiction or anything reasonable similar to it," fan fiction should be considered a fair use of copyrighted work because it is noncommercial, because it transforms the original work, and because it does not damage the market for the original work. And Tushnet points out that fan fiction is really nothing new:

The impulse to ask "What happened next?" is probably as old as the first well-told story. Storytellers have long drawn on a vast reservoir of cultural knowledge. No one had a better claim to characters and situations in that reservoir than any other person. For example, moved by characters he did not create, Alfred, Lord Tennyson imagined and described the further adventures of Ulysses. Because of social and economic changes during the past few hundred years, however, most readily available and widely known characters are now corporate creatures.

As complicated as the legal basis for protection of fictional characters is, the basis for intellectual-property laws themselves is complicated and controversial. As Edwin C. Hettinger's essay "Justifying Intellectual Property" argues, there are "significant shortcomings" in the all the justifications that can be offered for intellectual property rights. He finds the strongest argument for intellectual property to be the utilitarian one: that "promoting the creation of valuable intellectual works requires that intellectual laborers be granted property rights in those works." But there is an inescapable paradox at the heart of this:

It establishes a right to restrict the current availability and use of intellectual products for the purpose of increasing the production and thus future availability and use of new intellectual products. . . . Although this strategy may work, it is to a certain extent self-defeating. If the justification for intellectual property is utilitarian in this sense, then the search for alternative incentives for the production of intellectual products takes on a good deal of importance. It would be better to employ equally powerful ways to stimulate the production and thus use of intellectual products that did not also restrict their use and availability. (33-34)

The discussion of the basis for intellectual property protections of fictional characters, and the arguments against intellectual property fill whole books. But the Cthulhu Mythos seems to have developed largely without reference to intellectual property laws. As we have seen, Lovecraft gave explicit permission to many of his friends to use his characters in their own work, and he used theirs. Plus, the intellectual property protections for characters were less developed back when the Mythos was getting its start.

While the Cthulhu Mythos is unusual, it is not unique. A more modern example of a truly shared universe is the Star Trek universe. As Dorothy Howell writes, "The original Star Trek has inspired a body of amateur literature that has been actively encouraged by the originators of the literary property. There is no measure to determine the degree to which these amateur efforts have served to keep Star Trek alive through no less than five theatrical films, a seemingly endless supply of pastiches, and the syndicated live-action Star Trek: The New Generation, the most recent television entry." (123) Of course, since Howell wrote that in 1990, there have been several more films, more TV series, more books, and the growth of Star Trek fan fiction on the Internet. And as Tushnet comments, "Star Trek's official derivative works are thriving; an official Star Trek novel is sold every thirteen seconds. . . . This success coexists with the enormous amount of print and Internet Star Trek fan fiction available."

The examples of the Cthulhu Mythos and Star Trek show that, far from decreasing the market for the original works, fan fiction can increase the market by keeping readers (or viewers) enthralled by the continuing adventures taking place in their own special universe.


Lovecraft once wrote a letter to a young friend who had disregarded a story idea he had suggested. Now a story on the same subject, by a different author, is featured on the cover of a magazine:

But what makes me maddest about this issue, damn it, is the dinosaur's egg story given first place and cover design. Rotten -- cheap -- puerile -- yet winning prime distinction because of the subject matter. Now didn't Grandpa tell a bright young man just eight years ago this month to write a story like that? Didn't Grandpa go and ask at the American Museum about dinosaur eggs (then known only hypothetically) to see whether they were hard or soft, and didn't he tell flaming youth to write a nightmare of a yarn about what lumbered about in the museum basement at night? And then didn't a timid youth go and refuse to do it just because he'd read H.G. Wells' "AEpyornis Island"? Fie, Sir! Somebody else wasn't so afraid of the subject -- and now a wretched mess of hash, just on the strength of its theme, gets the place of honor that Young Genoa might have had! Now, Sir, let this teach you not to be so scareful about general similarities in future! You ought to know that the style is the thing, and that subject-matter is relatively immaterial. It's the development which makes a tale one's own or not one's own." (Selected Letters III, 186)

This quote again shows several things about Lovecraft's attitudes toward intellectual property that have been discussed earlier in this paper. Lovecraft was generous with his time and talent, sharing ideas freely with his friends through his voluminous correspondence. During the early parts of his career he devoted enormous amounts of time and energy to amateur journalism, serving in leadership positions in both the United Amateur Press Association and the National Amateur Press Association. His attitudes on art were in keeping with this. He wrote, he often told his correspondents, for self-expression; while he did sell his works and eked out a bare living doing so, he only very rarely tried to shape his writings to please the taste of an editor or audience.

While, as we have seen, the Cthulhu Mythos has in many ways strayed far from the vision of the artist who created it, in another way it has remained very true to his spirit.

For, like Lovecraft, most of the writers, fans and publishers who contribute to the Cthulhu Mythos seem to do so for love, not profit. As we have seen, Arkham House was founded by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei as a tribute to their friend Lovecraft; and Derleth used money a bank had lent him to build a home to start the press. Edward Berglund, who has devoted years to compiling and updating The Reader's Guide to the Cthulhu Mythos, makes it freely available online. And Necronomicon Press, which publishes lesser-known works by and scholarship about H.P. Lovecraft, is a small family operation.

The intellectual-property laws that protect fictional characters, though they have developed considerably since Lovecraft's time, still do not prohibit other writers from this. If a writer wishes to allow friends (or fans in general) to use characters from his or her work, the writer can do so. However, the example of Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos does not provide much help in determining whether the intellectual-property laws that protect writers who do not so wish to allow the use of their characters should be changed. Whatever the state of Lovecraft's copyrights, the development of the Mythos does not appear to have been affected by them one way or the other, since Lovecraft let the monsters out of the barn, so to speak, by giving others permission to use his characters and other elements from his fiction.

Therefore, to answer the question posed at the beginning of this paper, the success of the Cthulhu Mythos does not appear to pose a strong challenge to today's intellectual-property laws. But it does provide a fascinating example of an alternative way of handling intellectual property, one that is worthy of study for the many ways that Lovecraft's generosity with his creations has enriched his admirers.



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© 2003 Edward P. Berglund
"Letting the Monsters Out: The Cthulhu Mythos and Intellectual Property Rights": © 2003 Julie Harris-Hulcher. All rights reserved.
Graphic © 1998-2003 Erebus Graphic Design. All rights reserved. Email to: James V. Kracht.

Created: May 3, 2003; Updated: August 9, 2004