June 17, 2015
Shocking ruling over the rights to Tintin
by Nick Davies
The second-most well known fictional Belgian character (after Hercule Poirot) has recently been at the center of a legal dispute, as the heirs to the estate of Belgian cartoonist Hergé sued a fan group for using illustrations of his character Tintin, and unexpectedly found themselves on the losing side. (ed. note: Nick has this backwards. Or, at the very least, Snowy is the most well-known and Tintin is second and Poirot is third.)
Sarah Cascone reports for Artnet News that Moulinsart SA—the Hergé heirs’ Belgium-based company—is often litigious in protecting their copyright over The Adventures of Tintin and the popular characters who appear in it. They do “a brisk business selling souvenirs and merchandise based on the series,” which span nearly 50 years (plus one book published posthumously) and include 24 titles. The company sued a Dutch fan group, the Hergé Society, back in 2012 for “illustrating its Duizend Bommen publication…with Hergé’s original Tintin illustrations,” and in what’s been described as a shocking decision, a Dutch court ruled recently that Moulinsart doesn’t even hold the copyright to Tintin (or Captain Haddock, Professor Calculus, Snowy the dog, or any other characters).
The case came down to the surprising reveal of a 1942 contract, in which Hergé handed over the publishing rights to his characters to his publisher, Casterman. In an interview with the Comics Reporter, Bart Beaty, a professor of comics at Calgary University, describes the reaction to the ruling as one of shock, stating, “This is a legal decision that comes almost completely out of left field with absolutely no warning. The surprise piece of evidence—straight out of a 1940s courtroom melodrama—was not something that was on the radar. The ownership of Tintin was not something that I think many people thought was in question.”
Given the reputation of Moulinsart, though, it’s unlikely that many in the comics community will be shedding any tears over their loss. Nick Rodwell, husband of Hergé’s second wife Fanny, currently runs the company and is, per Beaty, “one of the most disliked people in European comics amongst fans.” He adds that Rodwell antagonizes both fans and scholars, and that “more than a few people feel that Casterman would be better stewards of the Hergé legacy than the man who married his widow.”
Beaty surmises that—especially given how unexpected the ruling and evidence are—there’s no way this is the end of the story, and that there are sure to be appeals and counter-suits over the Tintin empire in the days to come.
Nick Davies was a publicist at Melville House.