How One Man’s Lawsuit(s) Broke the Sonic Universe
When characters and lore from the comics become the subject of a bitter copyright dispute
The year is 2008, and Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood just released to middling reviews. It’s nothing exceptional: average at best and slow paced at worst, but SEGA was hoping that it would be something to push the Sonic brand in a new direction. Somewhere, Archie comic artist Ken Penders senses a disturbance in the universe.
Developed by BioWare and published by SEGA for the Nintendo DS, Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood is the series’ first and only full RPG title, focusing on exploration and combat rather than speed-based levels. The story focuses on Sonic and friends retrieving the chaos emeralds. While it starts par for the course, the story eventually devolves into a tale of a once thought extinct echidna clan and their quest to conquer the world.
Throughout the rest of 2008, things looked hopeful for the newly spawned spinoff franchise. The game ended in a “THE END?” cliffhanger and BioWare indicated that they already had a sequel in mind. However, two events made certain this game would forever remain a strange one-shot in an ever-stranger franchise. The first event was a direct stop, BioWare being acquired by Electronic Arts, and the second event was more like falling asleep. It happened slowly, and then at all once.
Ken Penders enters the chat
On January 1st, 2009, Ken Penders filed a copyright for every single one of his characters, including those he made specifically for the then long-running Sonic the Hedgehog comics published by Archie and its spinoff series, Sonic Universe. If you aren’t familiar with Penders, you might not realize the gravity this lawsuit holds. Penders had been with the Archie Sonic the Hedgehog run since its conception, and his contribution to the series was no small feat.
Aside from giving Sonic the middle name “Maurice,” he was responsible for creating a large and extensive family tree for Knuckles the Echidna, and several iconic and still widely-beloved characters, such as Scourge the Hedgehog, the literal evil version of Sonic the Hedgehog originally spotted while Sonic was got lost on the Cosmic Interstate and ended up an Anti-Mobius via interdimensional plot contrivances. Scourge at the time was named Anti-Sonic, and didn’t gain his iconic green fur until later in the run via more plot contrivances.
Penders’ ideas for the comic run were creative at best and strange at worst, and perhaps his best known contributions to the Archie/Sonicverse were the spinoff comics centering Knuckles the Echidna. This forsaken spinoff run was for all intents and purposes, the beginning of the end for the Archie Sonic the Hedgehog run.
Penders’ interests always seemed to align with writing more for Knuckles than for Sonic himself, but Penders’ Knuckles was far different from the lovable bonehead featured in the games. He served more as a classic leading man, constantly gaining new superpowers, coming from a very, very long family tree of equally powerful echidnas, gaining new love interests, and going on his own inter-dimensional travels completely separate from the speedy hedgehog.
For the duration of Penders’ run on Sonic the Hedgehog, he created over 200 characters for the series, but the ones he gave the most care to were his echidnas. This is where Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood comes back into play.
Ken Penders’ copyright filing meant that each and every character he created were his own intellectual property. To quote Penders himself, he was in the position to “use any legal means deemed necessary to protect and preserve” his work from both Archie and SEGA. Both SEGA and Archie were contacted about this filing and initially had no response.
From Penders’ web page:
…As for how it affects the SONIC THE HEDGEHOG titles published by Archie Comics, while it does not prevent them from publishing the SONIC series, they are not allowed to use any of my characters, concepts or stories without further discussion with my representatives. For now, they cannot reprint any of my stories in any media whatsoever, nor can they use any of my characters. Julie-Su, Geoffrey St. John, Hershey, Rob O’ the Hedge, Lien-Da, the Dark Legion along with the rest of the characters and concepts I created — including the alternative universes and future timeline — cannot appear in the series.
And so, the lawsuits began
Part 1: The Archie lawsuits
The first lawsuit came in November of 2010 and was filed against Archie Comics Publishing for alleged contract breaching. Despite Penders’ copyright, Archie was continuing to publish issues of Sonic the Hedgehog that Penders either had written, or contained Penders’ characters which were now his own intellectual property. The issue comes from a lack of royalty payments coming from these reprints. This, in and of itself, isn’t a morally wrong move to take. Penders believed he deserved royalty payments for books being published that contained his intellectual properties.
But, to bystanders, Penders resembled more of a maniacal villain, too attached to the furry woodland creatures he created for a video game comic. At this point, Penders had stepped down from the lead writer position for Sonic the Hedgehog and was replaced with Ian Flynn.
Earlier in the year, on February 14th, 2010, Penders posted this on his personal forum (it has been shortened for brevity):
Reading everyone’s comments leave me with the impression neither Mike Pellerito or Ian really know what to do with either the characters or the stories beyond regurgitating what came before.
…The fact is I never relied on any other Archie-Sonic writer’s material for any of my stories, not even when I was working with Mike Kanterovich. I would always come up with the basic plots and Mike would throw in bits to improve them, then we would work on the dialogue. I didn’t rely on Mike Gallagher’s material to drive my stories, nor did I ever pay attention to anything Karl was doing beyond supplying him with bits of info whenever he was incorporating one of my characters into his stories…
…Ian, on the other hand, hasn’t done any of that from what I see and hear. In fact, many of the stories that appeared in issues #160 through #175 were based off an outline I submitted to Mike Pellerito around the time I turned in the script to SONIC #157….
…So from where I sit, all Mike and Ian are doing is living off the work done by others that came before them instead of allowing SONIC to grow and evolve in a similar organic manner when I was on the book. I especially don’t consider anything either does with any of the echidna characters — especially Locke — to be canon as neither created the characters nor established them in stories as the viable fan favorites they’ve become. No matter what Ian writes, he can never alter the fact that in MY universe, the events of Locke’s passing as depicted in SONIC #143 is canon. Anything he writes can easily be counter-written by a better story with an alternative solution.
This lawsuit, along with comments made towards Flynn, led Sonic fans to believe that this was simply Penders being- in the kindest terms possible- spiteful.
Soon, Archie fired their entire legal team after they failed to produce Penders’ work for hire contract. This contract was very important, as it would show that Penders didn’t have a legal leg to stand on concerning this lawsuit- the contract would prove that he willingly signed over control of his creations to SEGA and Archie. Penders claims this contract never existed in the first place, and that he never signed any such paperwork.
To make a very, very long and complicated manner short, Archie was eventually able to produce a photocopy of said contract, Penders claimed it was forgery, and Archie soon discovered they didn’t have an original copy of any of their current and former contributors’ contracts.
Despite the lawsuit, the comic continued as if nothing happened for as long as possible, but in 2013, the unavoidable began.
The series experienced a soft reboot, thus eradicating any plotlines or characters originally created by Penders. 244 characters were gone, and the only surviving echidnas were SEGA mainstays, Knuckles and Tikal, minus any backstory or lore Penders gave either of them. This lawsuit ended on a settlement.
Part 2: The SEGA and Electronic Arts lawsuits
In 2011, a lawsuit was filed against SEGA and Electronic Arts. This lawsuit for the most part concerned alleged copyright infringement in Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood. Penders claimed that the Nocturnus Clan resembled his own echidna coalition, the Dark Legion, to an uncanny degree.
As stated previously, Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood’s plot revolves largely around a group of echidnas known as Nocturnus Clan. What they did is largely unimportant to this story- what matters is that they are a clan of echidnas with futuristic technology.
There was a lot of he said she said with this case, Penders claiming that BioWare reached out to him for ideas concerning the echidna clan before changing their names and refusing to prove financial compensation, but none of this has been proven.
This case didn’t contain near as much drama and (possible) personal vendettas like the Archie case despite Penders’ claims. In fact, it went out with a whimper rather than a bang.
Although this case is widely considered to be the straw that broke the camel’s back when it came to Archie rebooting Sonic the Hedgehog, it was dismissed without prejudice in late 2011. He tried to again in 2012 but was forced to temporarily limit his legal actions due to the statue of limitations. Penders can only take legal action again if any characters or ideas from Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood are used in the future. It’s believed that SEGA’s intention to avoid any further legal trouble from Penders is what’s keeping this spinoff series in permanent limbo.
The effects of the infamous Ken Penders lawsuits are still felt in the Sonic franchise today. The Archie Sonic comic run was discontinued without warning in 2017, and many point to Penders as one of the major reasons, though there is no concrete proof of this.
Since Penders’ lawsuits, SEGA has created a very tight list of mandates for their characters to follow in any piece of media involving the Sonic franchise. It’s easy to link this to their leniency with Penders in the ‘90s and how quick he was to take advantage of that. Most current mandates forbid things Penders’ was directly responsible for his run in Sonic the Hedgehog.
For example, SEGA exclusive characters were forbidden to have familial relationships. This seems to be a preventative measure to keep anything like Knuckles’ very, very extensive family tree from ever happening again.
Characters created by Ken Penders were specifically forbidden from ever being seen again, along with any characters from Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood.
SEGA characters were also forbidden from intense romantic relationships. While the first thing that may come to mind for many is Sonic’s long time girlfriend, Sally, this also be directly linked back to Ken Penders. Knuckles and a character that Penders now has complete copyright over, Julie-Su, were happily married and had a child. Yes, really.
Perhaps the most puzzling of these mandates that are especially felt today are that Sonic is forbidden to ever lose or be defeated or to express intense emotion.
While it would be unfair to claim the writing faults in modern Sonic content are all directly Ken Penders’ fault, it’s not a far off accusation.
Penders didn’t ask for these mandates to be put into effect, but it is directly because of his lawsuits that a majority of them exist in the first place. All of these can be considered preventative measures, as Sonic’s reputation cannot afford another controversy, especially one as big as the entire Ken Penders debacle.
With entire continuities gone and strict mandates in place for characters personalities and relationships, the Sonic writing staff doesn’t have much to work with and cannot experiment near as much as they were allowed to in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, and it’s obvious today in every piece of Sonic media. Whether or not that’s a good or bad thing is entirely objective, but there is a clear dissonance in the Sonic of today and the Sonic of before.
Where is Ken Penders now?
Ken Penders is currently working on a comic series that is, for all intents and purposes, picking up where his plot left off in Sonic the Hedgehog called The Lara-Su Chronicles.
There isn’t much to say about this series as very little has been revealed aside from the occasional render or piece of merchandise. Penders has claimed that he wants to link this comic to his previous work with Archie, but it seems almost impossible since he is forbidden to use Sonic and Co. for a commercial piece of work.
The general feelings towards Ken Penders, especially in the past few years, have all leaned towards contempt for the once respected writer, and he only seems to be digging a deeper hole for himself every time he speaks about his comic or his work on Archie.
In 2018, Penders admitted to quoting Mein Kampf in his Knuckles spinoff, which, to no one’s surprise, was not received well in the fanbase.
At this point in time, Ken Penders is the butt of every joke in the Sonic fandom and any defenders of him are sparse. Every time a new page of his comic is posted, it’s quickly met with ridicule and mockery.
There isn’t exactly a happy or sad ending to this story, nor is there a clean-cut moral to go with it. Was Penders wrong for asking for proper compensation? No, not exactly. Most comic artists and writers are severely underpaid and overworked, it’s not a bad thing to ask for proper compensation from your former employer.
Was Penders in the right for filing a lawsuit against SEGA for Sonic Chronicles? According to the law, he wasn’t, but he was well within his legal rights to step in when he felt as though his intellectual properties were being infringed on.
The story of Ken Penders and the implosion of the Sonic lore and continuity isn’t an easy one to pass judgment on, nor is it as simple as some make it out to be.
SEGA and Sonic will both recover from this in due time. The IDW run of Sonic the Hedgehog is already proving to be wildly successful and well received, being led by former Archie writer Ian Flynn. Whether or not Ken Penders’ reputation will ever recover remains to be seen.
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