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.
- Saban Brands dubbed Smile PreCure! and Doki Doki! PreCure as Glitter Force and Glitter Force Doki Doki because they were in the same package that gave the company the rights to Digimon Fusion.
- 4Kids Entertainment's infamous One Piece dub only exists because it was licensed as part of the same package that gave them the rights to Ojamajo Doremi, and Toei Animation forced 4Kids to dub the show under penalty of losing the Doremi license.
- One of the best-known examples in comics 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 (Whiz Comics #1 was itself an ashcan copy).
- DC Comics' 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 comics 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 in 1978) they "published" Cancelled Comic Cavalcade, two 250-page editions of the cancelled comics just to secure copyright on the stories that 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, owners of Wonder Woman, made a huge mistake when creating the character: 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.
- 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. To avoid the trademark falling into disuse and 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).
- She-Hulk and Spider-Woman were born from an ashcan copy. After witnessing the success ABC had with Bionic Woman, a spinoff of The Six Million Dollar Man that starred a Distaff Counterpart to Steve Austin, Marvel took a look at their contract for the upcoming Incredible Hulk TV series and realized there was nothing stopping CBS from creating a female version of The Incredible Hulk that they would own the rights to. Although Stan Lee normally opposed such spinoff characters, he made an exception for She-Hulk in order to secure the rights to such a character for Marvel. Spider-Woman was likewise created to preempt Filmation's attempted to create a Spider-Woman character for Tarzan and the Super 7, forcing them to rename the character Web Woman.
- The 1966 adaptation of The Hobbit. Producer Bill Snyder bought the film rights from J. R. R. Tolkien on the cheap, planning an animated feature with Gene Deitch's assistance. However, it was a low-priority project for his studio, and never entered serious production. Just before the rights were set to lapse, though, 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 extend the rights long enough to negotiate a resale. However, his film had to be finished and released for that to happen. With the contract set to expire in one month, he convinced Deitch to hastily produce a 12-minute condensed version using still drawings, which was then screened in a single Manhattan theater on the day the contract would 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). The film finally resurfaced in 2012 when Snyder's son uploaded it on YouTube.
- The Lord of the Rings: The War of the Rohirrim: New Line Cinema and Warner Bros. hadn't owned the live-action film rights to anything T Olkein since the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies, so this animated film (in continuity with the Peter Jackson films) is a move to ensure that Amazon (who produced the megabudget series The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, which is unrelated to the films) wouldn't be the only creators of Tolkien-based content in the near future.
- The main reason for releasing Tom and Jerry: Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory was that Warner Bros.' license would have expired if they didn't release a new movie adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It went so poorly that the Roald Dahl estate revoked the license from Warner Bros. and gave it to Netflix. However, Warner was still able to greenlight a prequel entitled Wonka.
- Marvel has had huge success with their own movie adaptations of their superhero characters, including the sprawling, interconnected Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, three of Marvel's most popular properties — Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, and the X-Men — were conspicuous by their absence in the MCU. This was because Marvel sold the movie rights to their best-known characters during a period of financial troubles in the late 1990s. In the 2000s, however, Marvel began experimenting with in-house movie production and was rewarded with several smash hits. Since then, Marvel has been very interested in permanently reclaiming properties that could be added to the MCU, and its licensees resorted to ashcanning productions in order to retain their movie rights:
- The 1994 The Fantastic Four movie is the truest to the spirit of the trope, being ashcan fodder extraordinaire. German studio Constantin Film acquired the rights in 1986 and was about to lose them forever, so they made the film cheap, 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 that saw release the following year.
- The 2015 movie, infamously dubbed Fant4stic, was rushed out to prevent the property rights from reverting to Marvel. The rushed schedule led to a Troubled Production and director Josh Trank's Creator Breakdown. The final result was a significant Box Office Bomb and one of the worst-reviewed comic book movies ever made. Ironically, in 2019 Disney bought out most of 20th Century Fox's assets, including the cinematic rights to the Fantastic Four - so Fox's attempts to keep the rights out of Marvel's hands were at best All for Nothing.
- A fourth movie in the Spider-Man Trilogy was in the works, but once pre-production woes hit the project - Sam Raimi stated he could not meet the scheduled release date and retain creative integrity - Sony Pictures decided in 2010 to just reboot the series to keep Spidey away from Marvel Studios (which was about to release Iron Man 2 and had many others in production). The Amazing Spider-Man hit theaters in 2012 and was mostly received well, but its less-beloved sequel ultimately killed Sony's plans to make a rival cinematic universe based on just the Spider-Man side of Marvel. Instead, they struck a deal with Marvel Studios to let them use the character in films starting with Captain America: Civil War, and for both studios to collaborate on his solo movies (although Sony went ahead with movies based on Spidey's villains).
- Hellraiser: Revelations was quickly whipped together, with a mere 11 days of filming and about three weeks of post-production, specifically so 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 take part. Children of the Corn: Genesis was also rushed together by the Weinstein Company for the same reasons, and ended up about the same way.
- The Bourne Legacy: Matt Damon, in an interview with Screen Rant, stated that the film 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. Universal decided to cast Jeremy Renner as a new character, Aaron Cross, and make 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 were supposedly made in part because Universal wanted to get the films out of Development Hell quickly so they 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 give up the rights.
- A film based on the Vampirella comics had been in Development Hell for decades under different companies. Roger Corman's company had acquired the rights from the previous property owners at some point, but ultimately only made the 1996 film because they only had six months left before the license expired, requiring them to rush something out. After an incredibly Troubled Production, the final result was a miscast, critically panned film that the director Jim Wynorski later regretted ever making.
- My Name Is Modesty, a low-budget 2004 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 actually isn't terrible.
- Before Fox released the 2015 version of Fantastic Four, Dragonball Evolution was seen as their biggest ashcan copy. The main reason for the film's quality was that Fox pushed 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, critics slammed it for being more akin to a trashy Cliché Storm teen drama on The CW than an action/adventure story.
- The little-known fourth Porky's film, Pimpin' Pee Wee, was produced on a very hurried schedule in 2009, purely to derail 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 the producers could hold onto the rights long enough to release the planned theatrical remake. 2018's Day of the Dead: Bloodline released just under 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 lawnote , 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 his other books once the time came. Paramount, therefore, wanted to wring something out of the rights while they still had them.
- The film adaptation of Atlas Shrugged. After spending decades in Development Hell as various attempts to make either a movie or a miniseries out of Ayn Rand's novel (some of them with Rand's involvement) flopped, millionaire investor John Aglialoro bought an 18-yearoption on it and pitched it to various studios throughout the '90s and '00s. With his options set to expire, Aglialoro sunk much of his personal fortune into financing the first installment, expecting a bigger budget for the next films. It didn't work out how he'd hoped; the first film was a Box Office Bomb and the second and third films getting reduced budgets and limited releases as a result.
- 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): Ron Howard is told by a drunk lawyer at the company Christmas party that Imagine's Fantastic Four license 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, which follows the prologue of Eye of the World, but with a twist ending. It stars illy Zane as a surprisingly decent Mephistophelian Ishamael and Max Ryan as a soft, homey Lews Therin, who looks nothing like the leader of the free world. They keep talking and name-dropping, LT keeps calling his wife, then Ishy cures his insanity, shows that LT's home palace really is dark and run-down, that his entire family is murdered, then offers a deal with Shai'tan. Instead of killing himself by creating a volcano like in the book, LT saves on special effects and switches his insanity back on to stay with his family. 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 FXX. The TV rights to the Wheel of Time series were set to revert from Red Eagle Entertainment (which has held them since the mid-2000s) to the Bandersnatch Group (owned by the Robert Jordan estate) on February 11th. Needless to say, Jordan's widow was not pleased. Lawsuits were threatened against Red Eagle, and when the dust finally settled, Harriet was able to get the rights back and turned to Amazon Prime, which produced an actual series based on the novels. Winter Dragon is available on YouTube, both the original version and the fan-edited, 10-minute-long Dusty Wheel Cut.
- 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 the studio couldn't produce a second movie in that time frame, and that network television would never be able to get a TV show based on Blazing Saddles past the censors. However, Warner Bros. realized 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 the network would never allow on air) and aired it once, late at night, to qualify it as a TV production. 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 the pilot for him to prove their point — although the sequel project died on its own merits some time later. The Black Bart pilot only saw the light of day again as a bonus feature on the Blazing Saddles DVD.
- In 2010, Turner Classic Movies quietly aired a bizarre special where Leonard Matlin intervs Warren Beatty in-character as Dick Tracy. This special was made solely so that Beatty could extend his rights to make a second Dick Tracy film. A second special would air in 2023, with Beatty again portraying both Dick and himself, with Dick actively complaining to Beatty about the film and the modern film industry.
- 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 doesn't even care enough to release previously-unheard material and will simply compile a Greatest Hits Album.
- 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 wasn't 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 didn't want to draw much attention to this calculated business decision, so they released the album as a limited edition of 100 copies in a handful of European markets with minimal promotion. The set became immensely popular and copies sell for high prices - the music has never been re-released. Ironically, its limited availability and official status have encouraged far more downloading than if it had passed into the public domain unnoticed.
- Capitol Records responded to a similar copyright crisis by continually releasing rarities compilations from The Beach Boys, including several rare fan-favorites that may never have seen the light of day otherwise.
- The Human League's 1981 single "Boys and Girls", the debut release of their "Mk. II" incarnation (though simultaneously the last song in their Mk. I iteration's Dark Wave style), was desperately rushed through production to begin clearing their heavy debts to Virgin Records. As an indicator of this, neither Joanne Catherall nor Susan Ann Sulley (then new to the band's lineup) appear on the song despite appearing on the single's cover, thanks to them still being in school at the time.
- Due to a contract dispute, Heart's original label, Mushroom Records, released the album Magazine without Heart's 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.
- In 1979, The Alan Parsons Project were nearing the end of their first contract with Arista Records when they came up with The Sicilian Defence, a hastily recorded collection of sound scraps meant to fulfill the contract so the band could focus on negotiating a new one without worrying about splitting time and attention between negotiations and music-making. The name, taken from a series of opening moves in chess, is apt, given the album was conceived as a "chess move" against Arista by band manager and songwriter Eric Woolfson. While never intended for public consumption, The Sicilian Defence finally received an official release as part of The Complete Albums Collection in 2014.
- Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, a double album consisting of Lou Reed playing droning/squealing guitar feedback in Gratuitous Panning for over 60, joyless minutes, is usually seen as an attempt to get around a restrictive contract at RCA that required Reed to release two more albums before he could get out of it. It is said that recording contracts ever since have contained a "Metal Machine Music Clause" which states the albums an artist releases under the contract must sound 'like themselves'.
- After 5 years, the sponsors of the Magic Girl pinball machine started to wonder what they'd get for their money, and even considered a lawsuit against the creator, given the last they'd 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 same faults, and some additional bugs introduced by expensive parts being missing.
- H.M.S. Pinafore was a huge hit for Gilbert and Sullivan in their native Britain, but when they attempted to mount a production in the United States, they found that audiences were already familiar with unauthorized productions that had been "pirated" from performances seen in England. Their next musical, somewhat inspired by the experience, was The Pirates of Penzance. This time they premiered the show in America, but they still needed a British premiere for copyright back home, and couldn't rehearse two casts at once. The solution? Just before the Broadway opening, they had a (no doubt bewildered) touring company of Pinafore throw together a "British premiere" of Pirates, with one day's rehearsal, at an obscure theatre in an English seaside town.
- Japan once had a law prohibiting arcade cabinets from being distributed without games. Manufacturers obliged by providing very simple games good for little more than 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 Adobe Flash game, produced in just four days, to maintain their trademark on Star Control.
- Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 5 has been called an Ashcan Copy, as 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, 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). Unsurprisingly, the game received harsh negative reviews.
- 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, lacks proper collision detection, and shipped with a Game-Breaking Bug caused by accidentally activating the Caps Lock key on start-up.
- The licensed Street Hawk game would have been even more obscure than the series itself if it weren't an ashcan copy. Ocean Software had sold a gaming magazine the rights to bundle the game with a particular issue, but development stalled and they were in danger of missing the deadline and having to give the mag their money back, so an entirely different game was hastily thrown together to meet the letter of the contract. It was almost universally panned as pure shovelware, and the proper Street Hawk game didn't fare much better with reviewers when it came out a year and a half later.
- When Dead by Daylight announced in 2021 that it would release non-fungible tokens (NFTs) based on Hellraiser to tie in with a recent DLC pack featuring Pinhead, many fans of the game were outraged and saw it as a cash grab. Some immediately speculated that the release of the NFTs was largely due to the rights to the Hellraiser franchise being set to revert back to Clive Barker in December of that year; the rights holders created the NFTs as one final attempt to get some money out of the property.
- Popeye received a cheap (alleged) remake for the Nintendo Switch in 2021 to retain the rights to the character. It's cobbled together in the most slapdash way possible from a low-poly pirate-themed asset pack and some free Popeye models from TurboSquid. Development studio Sabec was so aware of how low-quality it was they didn't even bother to put their name on the title screen or box cover.
- 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 Fantastic Four, Dick Tracy, Bourne Legacy, and Hellraiser: Revelations.