Thomas Kelley probably would love the fight raging over the copyrights on his two most famous books.
Mr. Kelley wrote hundreds of adventure stories in the 1940s and 50s, and dubbed himself "the king of Canadian pulp writers." His titles include The Talking Heads, The Soul Eater and The Face that Launched a Thousand Ships, the latter about an archeologist who exhumes Helen of Troy, only to find her alive and well.
Mr. Kelley died impoverished in Toronto in 1982, setting off a legal battle over the rights to his two most famous books -- the vigilante murder of the Donnelly family in an Ontario village in 1880. The books have sold more than a million copies and been reprinted dozens of times.
The copyright saga pits Mr. Kelley's 70-year-old former landlady, Theresia Winkler, against Sam Roy, a Toronto real-estate developer who says he bought the rights to the books in perpetuity for $2,300 in a deal struck with Mr. Kelley in 1968.
Also involved in the case are Firefly Books Ltd. of Toronto and Edperbrascan Corp., one of Canada's largest companies.
The books at the centre of the feud are The Black Donnellys: The True Story of Canada's Most Barbaric Feud, first published in 1954, and Vengeance of The Black Donnellys: Canada's Most Feared Family Strikes Back from the Grave, first published in 1962.
The Black Donnellys has been reprinted 24 times, and has sold more than a million copies in Canada, the United States and Britain. Vengeance has been reprinted at least 12 times and has sold hundreds of thousands of copies.
They are written in Mr. Kelley's unmistakable sensational style. For example, chapters in Vengeance are titled He Went to Hell in Pieces and I'll Brand My Initials on Her Rump.
In a ruling made public yesterday, the Federal Court of Canada said Mr. Roy is entitled to the rights to the books only until Feb. 14, 2007, the 25th anniversary of Mr. Kelley's death.
They will then revert to Ms. Winkler, who looked after Mr. Kelley and his wife in the last few years of their lives. The Kelleys left what remained of their estate to Ms. Winkler and named her executor (Mrs. Kelley died two weeks before her husband).
"She's very happy," Peter Wells, Ms. Winkler's lawyer said yesterday. "From Ms. Winkler's point of view, the primary motivation wasn't the money. I think it just bothered her that somebody was out there making money from the Kelley books without, apparently, any right to do so."
But Mr. Roy, 79, vows to fight on and plans an appeal.
"After all these years somebody takes the stand that I don't have the rights to it, yet there are all kinds of documents that say I paid Thomas Kelley for the rights in perpetuity," he said yesterday. "What did she pay for it?"
Mr. Roy said Mr. Kelley was desperate for money in 1968 when he sold the rights to the Donnelly books. "He was a poor man on welfare."
Because of the court action, Firefly has not distributed its new version of the Donnelly books in the past two years.
"We are about to put the books back into circulation again, and we expect them to be big sellers," said Lionel Koffler, Firefly's president.