A cheaply and quickly produced work, not intended to be shown to the masses and disseminated only to the minimum extent required to fulfill some non-artistic obligation like claiming a trademark.
The term originated in The Golden Age of Comic Books, when there was a big rush to copyright as many characters and titles as possible, but the production time available was measured in days or hours, far too short to put out a real comic. The solution? Create a simple mock comic, often just a cover and some unrelated filler made up of garbage sheets, and submit it to the copyright office. The term itself comes from the fact that these comics often weren't actually distributed to newsstands, just going straight to the ashcan (period vernacular for trashcan) once their purpose had been served.
Starting in The Dark Age of Comic Books, an "ashcan" copy of a comic, often black and white and limited in distribution, would sometimes be distributed as a promotional item. These comics were called "ashcans" for marketing reasons (i.e. to imply rarity and value like the Golden Age versions) but really had little to do with Golden Age ashcans.
In the wider culture, "ashcan copy" has stuck around to describe any crappy proof-of-sort-of-concept work that exists solely because of the strange intricacies of trademark and licensing law — especially in the US, where television or movie adaptation contracts often have a "use it or lose it" expiration date by which a license must be exercised to prevent reversion to the original rights holder.
While the Ashcan Copy originated in comics, many contemporary cases involve movie concepts optioned from other media, as such contracts usually include reversion clauses and film development is a notoriously lengthy and troubled process. A similar practice exists in television programming, where episodes of cancelled series are "burned off" in graveyard time slots.
If, by chance, these works ever actually do see distribution, expect them to become infamous. See also Franchise Zombie for other examples of shameless IP exploitation. Compare with Contractual Obligation Project; a situation where a work must be completed because it is mandated as opposed to being done to prevent an outcome.
- The most widely-known example is Flash Comics, which was actually the title of two different ashcans from different companies seeking claim to the title. DC Comics' Flash Comics combined cover art from Adventure Comics #41 with pages from All-American Comics #8; Fawcett's Flash Comics (also printed under the title Thrill Comics) featured the origin of Captain Thunder, who made his first regular appearance as Captain Marvel in Whiz Comics #2 (there was no Whiz Comics #1).
- DC Comics's Action Funnies ashcan contained pages from Detective Comics #10 and cover art that would later appear in color on Action Comics #3.
- Fawcett's 5-Cent Comics and Nickel Comics ashcans (black-and-white, no cover art) marked the respective debuts of Dan Dare and Scoop Smith, both of whom subsequently appeared in Whiz Comics. Nickel Comics became a regular series, but without Scoop Smith.
- Eerie #1 was a hastily assembled digest of horror comic stories with a print run of a few hundred copies, created by publisher James Warren to deny the title to rival publishers Myron Fass and Robert W. Farrell, whose company was named Eerie Publications.
- Following the "DC Implosion" (where DC Comics cancelled a whole bunch of titles all at once) they "published" Cancelled Comic Cavalcade, two 250 page editions of the comics which had been cancelled just to ensure copyright on the stories which had already been written & drawn. Only 35 copies were made, though black-and-white photocopies of the originals exist. The reprint was notable for being the first "appearance" of JLA member Vixen.
- DC Comics, owner of Wonder Woman, made a huge mistake at the time of the character's inception: they never thought about making a "Wonder Man". Marvel Comics played a prank on them by doing so first. They didn't take this very seriously: he was a one-time villain who died at the end of the story. But when the rights to this minor character were about to expire (and DC would be able to lay claim to the name), Marvel Comics resurrected the character and gave him a recurring role in the Avengers series, retaining the rights.
- Marvel has pulled the same stealth claim trick more than once: after DC sued Fawcett regarding how close Captain Marvel was to their own Superman, Marvel noticed that the superhero's name was legally up for grabs and created their own Captain Marvel (given the company name, they couldn't be blamed). Then DC bought Fawcett and incorporated the now rebranded Shazam into their universe. In order to avoid the trademark falling into disuse and thus becoming available to their biggest competitors, Marvel has had to publish at least one Captain Marvel title every year or two since, leading to a number of ongoing series, limited series and one-shots featuring a range of characters using the Captain Marvel alias (the original Mar-Vell, many of his sons and clones, and the current incarnation who used to go by Ms. Marvel).
- The 1966 adaptation of The Hobbit. Producer Bill Snyder bought the film rights from J.R.R. Tolkien on the cheap, and just before they were set to expire the popularity of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings books skyrocketed. Realizing he could make a tidy return on his investment, Snyder set out to get the rights extended long enough to negotiate a resale. However, a film had to be made and released in order for that to happen. With the contract set to expire in one month, he got Gene Deitch to hastily produce a 12-minute film using still drawings, which was then screened in a single Manhattan theater on the day the contract was set to expire. With its conditions fulfilled in the narrowest possible sense, the contract was duly extended and Snyder sold the rights for $100,000 (in 1960s money). In 2012 the film finally resurfaced when Snyder's son uploaded it on YouTube.
- The main reason for the release of Tom and Jerry: Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory was that Warner Bros.' license would have run out if they didn't release a new movie adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It ended up backfiring spectacularly. Not only did it end up being a Franchise Killer to the Tom and Jerry Direct-to-Video Film Series, but Warner Bros.' license was revoked by Roald Dahl's estate and given to Netflix.
- Marvel has had huge success with movie adaptations of its superhero characters, including the sprawling, interconnected Marvel Cinematic Universe continuity, financed and produced in-house. However, three of the most popular Marvel properties — Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, and the X-Men — were conspicuous by their absence in the MCU. Marvel sold off the movie rights to their best-known characters to make ends meet during a period of financial troubles in the late 1990s, even though their characters had never yet been successfully adapted to the big screen. In the 2000s, a new approach to development spearheaded by Jerry Calabrese and Avi Arad lead to a string of successful films by outside studios, and eventually to Marvel experimenting with in-house movie production rather than licensing to other studios. Characters like Iron Man and Captain America were considered second- or third-string heroes in the comics world, but Marvel still held their movie rights free and clear, so they made do with what was available and were rewarded with several smash hits. Since then, Marvel has been very interested in permanently reclaiming properties that could be added to the MCU, and their licensees resorted to ashcanning productions in order to hold on to their movie rights:
- The 1994 The Fantastic Four movie is the most true to the spirit of this trope for this list, being ashcan fodder extraordinaire. The German studio Constantin Film acquired the rights in 1986 and they were about to lose rights forever, so they made the film cheaply, hired famed B-Movie schlock-meister Roger Corman as producer, and it never got a wide release. It exists only in bootleg copies, some of which have made their way online. In 2004, Constantin teamed up with 20th Century Fox and finally filmed a movie the following year.
- The 2015 movie, infamously dubbed Fant4stic (still pronounced "fantastic four" like the team's name), didn't fare any better, as it was rushed out to meet yet another deadline for 20th Century Fox to produce a film (following the underperformance of Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer) or see the characters revert to Marvel. Fox's main concern was not only the potential lost revenue from (higher quality) future releases but also the fact that it would strengthen one of their direct competitors. This cynical impetus led to a Troubled Production, Executive Meddling, and director Josh Trank's Creator Breakdown and multiple Special Effect Failures from within. The final result was a significant Box Office Bomb and one of the worst-reviewed comic book movies ever made, disowned by Marvel itself and badmouthed by the director and many other members of the cast and crew. A planned sequel vanished from Fox's release calendar in November of 2015. Many critics suggested Fox could have made more money without even bothering to release a movie, by simply selling the rights back to Marvel Studios or striking a deal to allow reciprocal character appearances with the MCU, like Sony did after the diminishing returns of The Amazing Spider-Man Series. In 2017, Disney announced a buyout of most of 20th Century Fox's assets that was eventually completed in March 2019, including the cinematic rights to the Fantastic Four, meaning Fox's attempts to keep the rights out of Marvel's hands was all for nothing.
- Sony's Spider-Man license was originally doing much better than Fox and the Fantastic Four, and in fact is sometimes credited with kickstarting the current era of superhero movies. However, after Sam Raimi's fourth Spider-Man movie fell apart in the planning stage, a rebooted origin story called The Amazing Spider-Man Series was greenlit with an all-new cast and crew. Critics alleged the project was revived solely to extend Sony's reversion deadline, but the rebooted film was (unexpectedly) a big enough hit to generate talk of a franchise of its own to compete with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with Sony confident that Spider-Man was theirs for the foreseeable future. Even before the second film came out, Sony was hyping up spinoffs focusing on Venom and the Sinister Six. However, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 wound up a critical and box office failure, derailing all of Sony's carefully-laid plans to make Peter Parker into a meta-franchise. Sony was scrambling for any viable ideas; at one point, there was talk of a spin-off focused on Aunt May (a rumor that was quickly quashed by Sony, but which people had no problem believing). After the 2014 Sony email hack revealed that they were considering throwing in the towel and cutting a deal with Marvel Studios, pressure from fans who wanted to see Spidey "return home" led Sony to sign a deal in early 2015 to allow reciprocal character appearances with Marvel Studios, improving their chances of holding onto the license in the long term. Accordingly, Spidey's first solo film, Spider-Man: Homecoming was produced by Marvel Studios for Sony, set in the MCU, and quite well received.
Despite this, Sony resumed their spin-off plans with Venom starting in 2017, kicking off a Shared Universe "adjacent" to the MCU, unofficially referred to as Sony's Universe of Marvel Characters. In addition to that, they started another shared universe with the Spider-Man IP — this time, one that was completely animated, a venture not explored on a theatrical level — with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Versenote . The purpose of these movies are not to compete with Marvel themselves, or for Sony to prepare to terminate their successful partnership with Marvel Studios (although that possibility was on the table during a brief period in 2019), but to show that they can still make successful movies with the brand without needing Marvel's help, and to make use of certain concepts in the IP that Marvel aren't currently interested in exploiting. Both efforts have started off successfully, with Venom pulling in ridiculously high returns on a modest budget and generally-negative critical reception, while Into the Spider-Verse was a critical smash-hit, financially-successful, and even won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. Sony execs have stated that they have every intention of working with Marvel going forward on Marvel Cinematic Universe projects, and such a process ensures that the company is able to get three sources of revenue from the same IP instead of just two (animated and live-action). Not bad for a movie franchise that people were worried was on a downward spiral only five years prior.
- Of the three major Marvel franchises still held by outside studios, Fox's X-Men Film Series has most successfully avoided the need for an ashcan installment. While the quality of the films has been uneven (from the high of Logan to the low of Dark Phoenix), their release schedules have been steady, and the budgets have all been what one would expect for a major theatrical release, with Dark Phoenix in particular a critical and commercial failure. With the aforementioned Disney-Fox merger, that run is set to end in 2020 with The New Mutants, with a Continuity Reboot within the Marvel Cinematic Universe expected, but not officially confirmed.
- Hellraiser: Revelations was quickly whipped together, the filming taking place over a mere 11 days and the post-production going on for about three weeks, specifically so the The Weinstein Company could hold onto the rights to the Hellraiser franchise long enough to get a planned remake off the ground. The result is widely regarded as the worst film in a franchise that has seen its fair share of bad sequels, to the point where Clive Barker (who wrote and directed the original film) publicly disowned it and Doug Bradley (who played Pinhead in every film prior) refused to have any part in it.
- Matt Damon, in an interview with Screen Rant, stated that The Bourne Legacy was made entirely because Universal's contract with the Robert Ludlum estate would have expired in 2012 if they didn't make another Bourne film, yet Damon was busy and couldn't reprise the leading role. As such, they cast Jeremy Renner as a new character, Aaron Cross, and made the movie without the title character. They did eventually make another Bourne movie with Damon, titled simply Jason Bourne.
- Dudley Do-Right and The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle supposedly ended up this way, in part due to Universal wanting to get the films out of Development Hell quickly so that it could keep the film rights for the Rocky and Bullwinkle franchise. Both movies bombed at the box office, leaving Universal no other option but to just give up the rights - which, ironically, they would regain after acquiring DreamWorks Animation, owners of the characters with the Jay Ward estate.
- A film based on the Vampirella comics had been in Development Hell for decades under different companies. Roger Corman's company had at some point acquired the rights from the previous property owners but ultimately only made the 1996 film because they only had six months left before the license expired, requiring them to quickly rush something into production. After an incredibly Troubled Production, the final result was a miscast, critically panned film that the director Jim Wynorski later regretted making at all.
- My Name Is Modesty, a 2004 low-budget thriller featuring a young Modesty Blaise, was made so the production company could hold on to the film rights long enough to get things moving on a proper Modesty Blaise film. (As of this writing, they still haven't.) It was released direct to DVD, and for something made so quickly and cheaply it isn't actually terrible.
- Before Fox released the aforementioned 2015 version of Fantastic Four, Dragonball Evolution was seen as their biggest example in this department — much like the aforementioned Fan4stic, the main reason for this film's quality was due to Fox pushing it out the door just because the rights were expiring. Although many fans of the source material who have seen the film can name off a list of inconsistencies with the source material, among critics, it's been trashed for being more akin to a drama you'd find on The CW than an action/adventure story — the film attempts to combine the Emperor Pilaf Saga with the King Piccolo Saganote , with disastrous results; Justin Chatwin's performance as Goku (an optimistic, carefree Idiot Hero) is an angsty character who is mainly focused with getting the girl (for comparison's sake, Goku thought marriage was a type of food at the age he was when the events the movie is portraying happened in the manganote ), and the film is overall seen as a Cliché Stormnote . Ironically, the film might end up being one of the best things to happen in the franchise in the long run, since series mangaka Akira Toriyama, who is a notoriously apathetic creator, was appalled by the film, and actively became involved in the production of Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Gods - something he likely wouldn't have done had he not seen how disastrous the end result of letting other people handle his work without involving him wasnote . His involvement eventually led to another film, Resurrection 'F', and a new TV series, Dragon Ball Super — in other words, the film made him care about his work. While fans don't have to like the movie, maybe they should be a little grateful to the film.
- The little-known fourth Porky's film, Pimpin' Pee Wee, was produced on a very hurried schedule in 2009, purely for the purposes of derailing a remake of the first film that Howard Stern was attempting to mount.
- Day of the Dead 2: Contagium apparently started out as an unrelated zombie script that got hastily turned into a (nominal) prequel to Day of the Dead (1985), just so that the producers could hold onto the rights long enough to release the planned theatrical remake. 2018's Day of the Dead: Bloodline may also be an example, seeing how it just so happened to be released just short of ten years after the previous remake, and like Contagium has nothing in common with the 1985 original outside of dealing with a Zombie Apocalypse.
- Pet Sematary (2019) turned out to have been put into production because, under US copyright law,note Stephen King would soon be able to reclaim the film rights to his novel Pet Sematary, and what's more, he had been aggressive about reclaiming the rights to other books of his once the time came. Paramount, therefore, wanted to wring something out of the rights while they still had them.
- This trope was parodied in Arrested Development, where a fictional version of the '90s Fantastic Four movie is stated to be one of several movies made by Imagine Entertainment (the studio that makes the show), with the "crappy production" feature of the Ashcan Copy turned Up to Eleven: Ron Howard was told by a drunk lawyer at the company Christmas party that Imagine's license on Fantastic Four would expire unless a film was made within the next six days. They immediately cast the film with the bartenders from the party, then hired the same bartenders to work the film's wrap party five days later.
- Red Eagle Entertainment rushed out an adaptation of The Wheel of Time in the form of a 22-minute "pilot" called Winter Dragon. Starring Billy Zane, the short loosely incorporates some of the backstory of the series. According to the director, filming began on January 20th and post-production was completed on February 4th. It aired less than a week later at 1:30 AM on the FXX channel. The TV rights to the Wheel of Time series were set to revert from Red Eagle Entertainment (who has held them since the mid-2000s) to the Bandersnatch Group (which is owned by the Robert Jordan estate) on February 11th. Needless to say, Jordan's widow was not pleased. Threats of lawsuits against Red Eagle were made and when the dust finally settled Harriet was able to get the rights back and turn to Amazon Prime who are producing an actual series based on the novels.
- Warner Bros. produced a TV pilot called Black Bart based on Blazing Saddles just to retain the sequel rights to that film. Mel Brooks explained that he opposed the studio's desire for sequels and included a clause in his contract that all sequel and spin-off rights would revert to him unless Warner Bros. made a movie or TV show based on the film within six months of theatrical release. Brooks knew that the studio couldn't produce a second movie in that time frame, and that network TV would never be able to get a TV show based on Blazing Saddles past the broadcast censors. However, Warner Bros. realized that there was a loophole in the contract: to retain the rights, they only had to make a spin-off — there was no requirement to actually air it. So the studio secretly produced a pilot with CBS (a 24-minute synopsis of the movie with Louis Gossett Jr. as Bart and language that the network would never allow on air) and aired it once, late at night, to qualify it as a TV production. They went on to produce four seasons, albeit short ones, in secret and locked them away in a vault for safekeeping. Several years later, they asked Brooks to make a sequel, and when he refused on the grounds that they no longer held the rights, the execs brought Brooks onto the CBS lot and screened some episodes for him to prove their point — although the sequel project died on its merits some time later (leading to the series being "cancelled"). The Black Bart pilot only ever saw the light of day as a bonus feature on the Blazing Saddles DVD release.
- In 2010, Turner Classic Movies quietly aired a bizarre special in which Leonard Matlin interviewed Warren Beatty in character as Dick Tracy. This special was made solely so that Beatty could extend the rights he held to make a second Dick Tracy film.
- The "contractual obligation album". When an artist wants out of their contract but is required to produce a certain number of albums first, they will often dump the ragtag recordings that didn't make the cut for their other albums (B-sides, demos, live performances, and assorted unreleased content) into a CD case and push it out the door. The appropriately-titled Monty Python's Contractual Obligation Album is a typical example. Sometimes, the artist won't even care enough to release previously-unheard material, and will simply compile a Greatest Hits Album to do this.
- Bob Dylan's The Copyright Extension Collection was an official 4-CDR release by Sony Music Entertainment of many unreleased sessions and alternate takes from the early 60s. Much of this music had remained unreleased simply because it was not commercially viable, but the copyright laws in effect when it was made would open it to the public domain unless the studio publicly exercised its copyright within 50 years. The studio did not want to draw much attention to this calculated business decision, so released the album as a limited edition of 100 copies in just a few European markets with little promotion. The set became immensely popular and copies sell for high prices - the music has not been released again. Ironically, its limited availability and official status has encouraged far more downloading than if it had passed unnoticed into the public domain.
- The Human League's 1981 single "Boys and Girls", which was their last song in the "Mk. 1" dark synthpop style and not featuring "the girls" (who were in school at the time) despite them being pictured on the cover, was desperately rushed through production to begin clearing their heavy debts to Virgin Records.
- Due to a contract dispute, Heart's original label, Mushroom Records, released an album, Magazine, without their involvement in 1977. The band obtained an injunction and were able to re-record and remix it after the court found that they owed Mushroom a second album in 1978.
- After 5 years, the sponsors of the Magic Girl pinball machine were wondering what they would get for their money, and even considering a lawsuit against the creator, given that the last they had seen of the machine was a barely playable prototype at an Expo in 2015. To stave off the lawsuit, in 2017, they all received.. manufactured copies of the same prototype, with all the faults still there, and some additional bugs introduced by expensive parts being missing.
- The Pirates of Penzance, though by the British team of Gilbert and Sullivan, had its premiere on Broadway to secure American copyright. (This was before international copyright law.) But the team still needed a British premiere for copyright back home, and couldn't be rehearsing two casts at once. Solution? Just before the Broadway opening, they had a (no doubt bewildered) touring company of H.M.S. Pinafore throw together a "British premiere" of Pirates, with one day's rehearsal, at an obscure theatre in an English seaside town.
- In a non-Western example, Japan had a law prohibiting arcade cabinets from being distributed without games. Manufacturers obliged by providing very simple games good for little else but testing the monitors and controls. Sega's Dottori-Kun and Taito's ''Minivader'' are typical examples, featuring primitive black-and-white graphics and no sound. Konami's Mogura Desse is a slightly more sophisticated example; it has color and sound to go with its highly simplistic gameplay.
- In 2007, Atari commissioned a simple flash game produced in just four days in order to maintain trademark on Star Control.
- Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 5 has been called an Ashcan Copy, given that it was released in a horribly unfinished state with game breaking bugs galore. Professional skateboarder Tony Hawk's long-term contract with Activision, signed in 2002, was set to expire at the end of 2015, and so Activision allegedly rushed the game out the door in September of that year as one last cash-grab (and possibly to generate enough renewed interest to put a new deal on the table). The game received harsh negative reviews, and following the release, Tony Hawk was no longer affiliated with Activision. In 2020, however, the two resumed their collaboration with the release of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 1+2, a faithful remake of the first two games in the series.
- The Spectrum version of SQIJ! was hastily slapped together to fulfill the creator's contract with his publisher, The Power House, even though he had no real interest in working for them. The game is horribly slow, has no proper collision detection, and shipped with a game-breaking bug caused by the Caps Lock key being incorrectly enabled.
- This trope is the first point on Cracked writer David Christopher Bell's list of "6 Brilliant Explanations for Why Modern Movies Are So Stupid", describing it as "a juggling act of rushed sequels". He mentions several movies made solely to retain franchise rights, including the Fantastic Four, Dick Tracy, Bourne Legacy, and Hellraiser: Revelations examples listed above.