The powers that bind even superheroes

10th February 2022

A key consideration in any acquisition is the value of the intellectual property (IP) forming part of the purchase. Quite often IP (providing that it is properly protected and commercialised) is one of the most valuable assets of a business.

That was undoubtedly the case in Funcom[1]’s recent acquisition of Cabinet Group, formerly Paradox Entertainment (“Cabinet”), which included the rights to Conan the Barbarian, Solomon Kane and Mutant Year Zero to name but a few.

Whilst Conan is by far the most well-known of the characters (with a Netflix TV show currently in development), the rights to around 50 characters in total, including Robert E. Howard’s pulp fiction universe, formed part of the acquisition. Lucrative Conan licensing deals with Penguin Random House, Panini, Titan Books and Monolith have helped the character reach the (more-mainstream) Marvel-obsessed generation around the world. Marvel (which is Disney owned) is also publishing a new Conan comic book every month. Exploitation of the rights by Funcom is certain to be worth a pretty penny although the purchase price of the acquisition has not been disclosed.

The acquisition is the culmination of a longstanding collaboration between Funcom and Cabinet dating back to the early 2000s and the development of the online multiplayer game Age of Conan: Unchained (formerly known as Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures). As part of the deal, Cabinet will become part of the Funcom subsidiary, Heroic Signatures, a 50/50 joint venture which Funcom and Cabinet set up three years ago specifically to license Cabinet’s library of IP for video games. The co-founder and CEO of Cabinet will also step in as president of Heroic Signatures. The intention is also to license the extensive IP portfolio for use in other media. Funcom CEO, Rui Casais, summarised the perfect pairing:

"if you combine Funcom’s knowledge of games with Heroic Signatures’ knowledge of the TV/entertainment, publishing, and licensing industries, it makes us perfectly placed to take this venture to the next level. It’s exciting times ahead for us and for fans of the IPs.”

Whilst the comic book industry is undeniably lucrative, some creatives and comic book purists are concerned that the monetisation of their characters and the increasingly regular disputes over ownership (which includes the latest Marvel/Disney spat) take something away from their creative process and raison d’être.

No matter how extensive the imagination of the creators, comic book worlds will always be constrained by intellectual property laws. Take Marvel, for example, again; the pop-culture as we know it from the films has been shaped primarily by the rights within the control of the film-makers. How characters and canon can be used is strictly governed by the transfers, assignments and licences in place between the various parties involved. Historically the system did not favour the creatives with many being paid a pittance despite being the brains behind some of the genre’s best-loved characters (Superman’s creators only received $130) or alternatively being crushed by the large corporations if their designs bore any semblance of similarity to the big name money-spinners.

With the development of the internet and creatives becoming increasingly savvy (having learnt from the horror stories of their predecessors) independent designers now know to retain as much control of their creations as possible, registering any rights capable of registration and actively seeking to protect them. The big-players also seem increasingly willing to work with those less mighty in a bid to retain originality and further develop the worlds they have so fiercely protected.

[1] Funcom has been a developer and publisher of online games for PC and consoles since 1993.

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