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Copyright of the Daleks

A Dalek in the window of a Hornesy hi-fi shop; Matt Salusbury

A 'Complaints Manager Dalek' in the window of a vintage hi-fi shop in London

NOVEMBER 23 sees the fiftieth anniversary of the broadcast of the first Doctor Who episode. Freelances will no doubt be interested in the details one of the lesser-known aspects of Doctor Who's genesis all those years ago - the Copyright of the Daleks.

Under normal circumstances, most secondary rights and neighbouring rights on a Doctor Who script written for the BBC should have stayed with the BBC. In-house BBC designer Raymond Cusick - a staffer - got nothing beyond his usual salary for designing the Daleks. Years later, he got a retrospective goodwill payment of a few hundred pounds (in 1980s money) for his Dalek designs.

The case of the scriptwriter who created the first Dalek series, however, was a very different matter. Failed comic Terry Nation, who wrote material for flawed comic genius Tony Hancock, worked as a freelance for Associated Scripts Ltd, a scriptwriting agency round the corner from the BBC, set up by Spike Milligan, Eric Sykes and Steptoe and Son writer Ray Galton. They negotiated with the BBC on behalf of their writers over the terms of their writers' contracts, and took a cut from the writers on their books.

Nation initially turned down an offer to write a story for a new children's sci-fi drama series in 1963, as he believed he had a steady supply of writing work for Hancock. Hancock, however, was rather difficult to work with, and the inevitable Hancockian falling-out soon followed. Nation took up the offer of writing what become the first Dalek story for Who, the offer still being on the table, as the BBC were by then one Who story short in their rapidly approaching first season, and needed a script rather desperately. Nation took on the Who scriptwriting gig as a Saturday job: writing gags for an Eric Sykes touring revue being his day job.

As The Man Who Invented the Daleks, Alwyn Turner's recent biography of Nation, reveals, so desperate were the BBC that they seem to have overlooked an obscure clause in Nation's contract. They drew up an apparently fairly standard contract for Nation and sent it to his agents. The secretary at Associated Scripts, Beryl Vertue, crossed out the bit in Nation's Doctor Who scriptwriting contract about "merchandising," telling the BBC such a clause was unnecessary. It seems the BBC failed to grasp the then new concept of merchandising, or the implications of Associated Scripts crossing out the clause.

The result was that Nation got the rights to Dalek-related product merchandising, and by Christmas 1965, Dalekmania had become almost as huge as the contemporary Beatlemania, with Daleks represented on everything from slippers to sweets to wallpaper. The rumoured seven-figure sum (in 1960s money) that Nation made before Dalekmania peaked is now thought to be an exaggeration, but when Nation moved with his family to Los Angeles in the 1980s, he didn't do much work there - nor did he need to. He was apparently still living off Dalek revenues.

The moral of the story? When they're desperate for material, they're really desperate, and you can use it to your advantage. Your understanding of copyright and other rights issues, it turns out, can often be better than "theirs". And there will always be newly evolving bits of the market - new media, new markets, new niches - that a fleet-footed freelance can get their head round quicker than a big organisation that takes a lot of time to turn round, like an oil tanker.

Beryl Vertue, the secretary who put a line through the BBC's merchandising clause on Nation's behalf, went on to become a successful TV producer in her own right.

Freelance assistant editor with Dalek; © Matt Salusbury

The Freelance's assistant editor with a Dalek at the Doctor Who Experience in 2011

Last modified: 03 Nov 2013 - © 2013 contributors
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