• Welcome to this new upgrade of the site. We are now on a totally different software platform. Many things will be different, and bugs are expected. Certain areas (like downloads and reviews) will take longer to import. As always, please use the Meta Forum for site queries or bug reports. Note that we (the mods and admins) are also learning the new software.
  • The RSS feed for the news page has changed. Use this link. The old one displays the forums, not the news.

Passing the Buck: A History of the Buck Rogers Franchise

The Buck Rogers franchise is back in the news thanks to a court ruling -- or lack thereof -- on who exactly owns the rights to the venerable sci-fi character's adventures. The battles playing out now in Hollywood parallel events that took place in gaming decades ago...when TSR CEO Lorraine Williams attempted to turn the franchise into a profitable enterprise for the company that founded Dungeons & Dragons.

View attachment 76558

What the Buck?

Deadline Hollywood explains Buck Rogers' legacy, which debuted in the 1928 novella, Armageddon 2419 A.D.:

Known as the original Buck Rogers story, Armageddon 2419 A.D. was a prescient novel, predicting among other things ray guns, drones, cell phones and night vision goggles. (Jet packs came along later in the series.) As Buck Rogers, the character of Anthony Rogers became a popular staple of the newspaper comics pages. Later on it was a successful film serial, a radio program and in 1979 at the height of Star Wars mania, it became a well-merchandized NBC series starring Gil Gerard that ran for two seasons.


Given Buck Rogers' influence on science fiction, the opportunity to resurrect the franchise has not gone unnoticed by Hollywood. The principals involved include some familiar names from gaming:

The feature project will be penned by Flint Dille and Ed Neumeier. Dille is an established screenwriter whose work goes back to the original Transformers animated series and animated film. His series of graphic novels Agent 13 is in active development at Universal. Currently, he is the creative lead on Google’s Ingress, its geo-mobile alternate reality game. Neumeier is an established voice in the large-budget science fiction arena, being the guy behind such classics as RoboCop and Starship Troopers.


Flint Dille's background has at a lot of intersections between gaming and film. He is the brother of Lorraine Williams and friend to both Gary Gygax (co-creator of D&D) and Corey Solomon (who produced several of the D&D films). For the full story of Dille's relationship with both men, see my previous article on the history of the D&D film franchise. But the Dille family impact on role-playing goes beyond films.

Roger, Roger

Flint Dille was an employee of TSR at one point, running TSR West -- an operation of eight employees at most. The Buck Rogers role-playing game XXVc began in TSR West before it transitioned to other divisions within TSR. TSR West also produced "comic modules," including one for Buck Rogers -- four pages of game material in a comic format -- a violation of comic publisher DC's agreement with TSR that would ultimately damage the relationship between the two companies.

But Buck Rogers would loom much larger in TSR's history thanks to Flint's sister, Lorraine. Shannon Appelcline explains in Designers & Dragons - the 70s how the TSR CEO would leverage her influence to bring Buck Rogers to gaming:

Lorraine Williams, who had taken over TSR in 1986, inherited the money she used in the takeover from her grandfather, John Dille. Dille had been the syndicator of the Buck Rogers comic strip, and its ownership had passed into the Dille Family Trust. Now with TSR also under her control, Williams decided to use the game company to increase the value of her family’s other property.


TSR kicked off the franchise with a Buck Rogers board game, which was soon followed by Flint's XXVc in a variety of mediums:

XXVc dominated Buck Rogers production throughout the next four years. Initial releases included the aforementioned TSR West comics (1990–1991), a series of 11 novels (1989–1993), and two SSI computer games (1990–1992). The TSR West roleplaying game, XXVc (1990), was finished up in Lake Geneva. It was supported by over a dozen supplements, however it didn’t do that well. Besides being burdened by an obtuse name, XXVc was also closely inspired by the second edition AD&D rules, and that class-and-level system had never been well-received in science-fiction circles.


Why did TSR focus so much on Buck Rogers? In addition to the obvious interest from the Dille family to branch out into a multimedia franchise, there were selfish reasons to push the brand:

Doing so was clearly a conflict of interest, but at the same time, an above-board one. There was no secret that Williams’ family owned Buck Rogers, and when TSR started paying royalties on the character, there was no secret that some of that ultimately went back to Williams herself. On the other hand, licensing this character and continuing to publish it was probably not beneficial to TSR or its other stockholders.


One of the challenges of the Buck Rogers' franchise is updating it for modern audiences. The tale of Buck Rogers, who isn't even named Buck in his debut, portrays non-white males (Wilma, the Han Empire) in a fashion typical of the 1920s. This is why every attempt to revamp the Buck Rogers franchise puts a new spin on the topic -- there's plenty of raw material to work with, but the rougher bits are usually sanded down for modern audiences.

Bucking the Trend

The new movie seems to be following a path similar to the XXVc reboot:

The new film will focus on a future informed by the present and predicts a 2419 based on scientific/technological advances in the 90 years since the novel was originally published. The Rogers character, having lost everyone he loved centuries ago, will be darker and more brooding, a fish out of water who struggles to find a way to fit in with a war-torn world.


The announcement of the film incurred the wrath of Dille family:

Soon after the announcement of the ARMAGEDDON 2419 film, Geer and Herman began to barrage Murphy with threatening letters, claiming they owned the Nowlan novel, either to shut the movie down and/or extract a rights payment. They even threatened Dille, who is one of the beneficiaries of the trust itself!


This is not the first time the Buck Rogers franchise has been a subject of litigation. In 2014 a New York state appeals court ruled that the Family Trust failed to show a cause for claiming the Trust's own attorneys committed malpractice by not resolving a dispute over the character's rights:

The appeals court’s opinion dismissed a claim that the Dille Family Trust levied against its erstwhile attorneys — that it failed to resolve an intellectual property dispute between the trust and the heirs of Philip Nowlan, the artist whom the trust’s forebears hired in the 1920s to create a comic strip based on the adventures of the dashing, futuristic hero — before they withdrew as counsel in a dispute over attorneys’ fees.


Ars Technica reported on the request for a judge to rule on whether or not Buck Rogers is in the public domain:

PLAINTIFF alleges, and DEFENDANT denies, that as a matter of law, the Mr. Nowlan’s novella entitled Armageddon 2419 A.D. including the character of 'Anthony Rogers' aka ‘Buck Rogers’ first appearing therein, are now in the public domain in the United States and the rest of the world, and accordingly, any member of the public, including PLAINTIFF, has the right in the United States to copy the expression embodied in this public domain work, and to create exploit derivative works based on this public domain work, without infringing any right of DEFENDANT under Copyright, or requiring attribution to DEFENDANT.


The argument is that copyright was limited to 14 years plus one renewal of an additional 14 years, means that the character would have entered the public domain in 1956, 28 years after he debuted in 1928. The case was filed by Team Angry Filmworks against the Dille Family Trust, who claims ownership to the Buck Rogers franchise. The judge punted:

Federal District Judge Joy Flowers Conti granted a defense motion to dismiss by the Dille Family Trust, the owner of the rights to Philip Francis Nowlan’s novel Armageddon 2419 A.D., in which the character originated... Conti said in her dismissal that she could not rule on the complaint filed by producers Team Angry Filmworks against the Dille Family Trust because the complaint failed tests for “immediacy” and “reality;” there was no deal to actually begin a film production, the potentially infringing activity on which Team Angry had asked Conti to rule.


It seems the threat of lawsuits won't be resolved by a judgment since there is no actual film for anyone to sue over. As the Hollywood Reporter put it:

The judge dismisses the complaint without prejudice and is allowing an amended version, but the insane result is that in order to find out whether Buck Rogers is in the public domain, a potentially copyright infringing work has to be made. Who wants to take that $100 million chance?


Like Buck himself, the franchise faces an uncertain future: It remains to be seen if Buck Rogers' return to film -- if it ever happens -- will be more successful than TSR's attempts to bring the franchise to gaming.

Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, and communicator. You can follow him at Patreon.
 
Michael Tresca

Comments

Mike, Ming the Merciless is a Flash Gordon villain, not a Buck Rogers character - alas, Buck was also a "Yellow Fear" medium, as it evil empire were the Han Empire (a.ka. chinese main ethnical group). In the modern version, they made the Han into the R.A.M. (Russo-American Mercantile).
 

Tyranthraxus

Villager
Alli really remember is the SSI games (which I think I still have the first one somewhere) and the tv show. Wow.. thats getting old now. Also Twiki
 

talien

Community Supporter
Mike, Ming the Merciless is a Flash Gordon villain, not a Buck Rogers character - alas, Buck was also a "Yellow Fear" medium, as it evil empire were the Han Empire (a.ka. chinese main ethnical group). In the modern version, they made the Han into the R.A.M. (Russo-American Mercantile).
Fixed, sorry about that. Thank you for pointing that out, I knew the difference in my head but conflated it on the page!
 

TerraDave

5ever
Flint Dille, backstabber. I never new much about the money sucking TSR West before, and interesting to see his direct involvement. Backstabber.
 

Pauper

Villager
Interesting about the dismissal of the federal district court case -- that might explain why the Axanar guys are claiming that CBS/Paramount can't stop them from making their fan film, at which point it then becomes litigable as a possibly infringing work.

In this specific case, though, I think the judge erred -- part of the benefit of copyright is the right to determine what derivative works are made from the copyrighted material. In order to determine whether the Dille Family Trust still has the right to determine what derivative works can be made from Buck Rogers, a court must decide whether the work is in the public domain or whether the Trust still owns an effective copyright.
 

Dire Bare

Adventurer
Flint Dille, backstabber. I never new much about the money sucking TSR West before, and interesting to see his direct involvement. Backstabber.
Ah, please explain why Flint Dille is a "backstabber". Preferably with facts, rather than vitriolic namecalling.
 

TerraDave

5ever
Ah, please explain why Flint Dille is a "backstabber". Preferably with facts, rather than vitriolic namecalling.
I can engage in whatever kind of "namecalling" I want, dire bear. I also assumed that most people who read the post would understand. But as you asked.

Flint Dille, according to this article and others, was a "friend" of Gygax. Yet after Flint's sister drove Gygax out of the company, he still took over Gygax's west coast work and ran the money loosing black hole that was TSR West.
 

EdL

Villager
So why are you using a picture of Richard Balinger Seaton for your Buck Rogers article? The cover of the issue of Amazing Stories (which would be published by TSR for a while), which also published Nowlan's story, features the heroes of EE 'Doc' Smith's story: The Skylark of Space, NOT anything from Armageddon 2419.
 

talien

Community Supporter
So why are you using a picture of Richard Balinger Seaton for your Buck Rogers article? The cover of the issue of Amazing Stories (which would be published by TSR for a while), which also published Nowlan's story, features the heroes of EE 'Doc' Smith's story: The Skylark of Space, NOT anything from Armageddon 2419.
To your point, this is a picture from the 1928 cover of Amazing Stories where Buck debuted.

I picked it because it's a striking image and also horizontal, which both lend themselves to web publishing. I didn't think the Armageddon 2419 A.D. cover was nearly as engaging.

Also, I like "jet packs" (I know, I know, it's not a jet pack, but I associate it with these kinds of retro-future media).
 

Dire Bare

Adventurer
I can engage in whatever kind of "namecalling" I want, dire bear. I also assumed that most people who read the post would understand. But as you asked.

Flint Dille, according to this article and others, was a "friend" of Gygax. Yet after Flint's sister drove Gygax out of the company, he still took over Gygax's west coast work and ran the money loosing black hole that was TSR West.
Yes, TerraDave, you certainly can call anybody whatever names you want. Don't let me stop you! However, when one resorts to namecalling, especially without any context, nobody's going to take you seriously. Heck, even when it is IN context, it just comes across juvenile and rude.

I did read the OP, including the linked articles, and yet still didn't understand your reference. It could be that I'm slow, or it could be that it is not clear in any way that Mr. Dille is a "backstabber" based on what's written (and linked). Thanks for your clarification, as I now see your reasoning.

I disagree. If a friend of mine gets screwed over by management, is it my ethical responsibility to quit my job, or at least not accept a promotion or further work within the company? Hardly. And considering how little we fans know about how Dille felt about the situation between Gygax and TSR management, or what, if any, conversations Gygax and Dille had over the brouhaha, it seems hardly fair to label Dille a "backstabber".

I'm one of those generous sorts who does not assume evil intent when I have little in the way of facts or even firsthand references. I've enjoyed the work of both men, both in gaming and the film industry, and I'll continue to think highly of both, for now at least. Even if I were to read an article clearly describing bad blood between the two, it's been almost three decades. Hopefully, Gary passed on without any negative feelings towards Dille, I'd like to assume so since Gary was an all around nice guy. If he could do it, I'll certainly give Dille the benefit of the doubt.
 

EdL

Villager
To your point, this is a picture from the 1928 cover of Amazing Stories where Buck debuted.

I picked it because it's a striking image and also horizontal, which both lend themselves to web publishing. I didn't think the Armageddon 2419 A.D. cover was nearly as engaging.

Also, I like "jet packs" (I know, I know, it's not a jet pack, but I associate it with these kinds of retro-future media).
Ok, I can see that. It would have been nice if you'd mentioned it in the article though. SF fans have been trying to educate people regarding who's actually depicted on that cover for decades, because Buck fans keep using it as you did. But often without knowing that it isn't him, unlike yourself.
 

Advertisement

Latest threads

Advertisement

Top