An ashcan copy is a type of American comic book publication created solely to establish trademarks on potential titles and not intended for sale, which was done in the 1930s and 1940s when the comic book industry was in its infancy. The term was revived in the 1980s by Bob Burden, who used the term for prototypes of his self-published comic book. Since the 1990s, it has been used to describe promotional materials produced in large print runs and made available for mass consumption. In the film and television industries, the term has been adopted for low-grade material created to preserve a claim to licensed property rights.
In the 1930s, the modern comic book was created and rapidly grew in popularity. In the competition to secure trademarks on titles intended to sound thrilling, publishers like All American Comics and Fawcett Comics developed the ashcan edition, which was the same size as regular comics and usually had a black and white cover. Typically, cover art was recycled from previous publications with a new title pasted to it. Interior artwork ranged from previously published material in full color to unfinished pencils without word balloons. Not all of the titles secured through ashcan editions were actually used for regular publications.
The purpose of the ashcan editions was to fool the US Patent & Trademark Office into believing the book had actually been published. Clerks at the office would accept the hastily produced material as legitimate, granting the submitting publisher a trademark to the title. Since the ashcans had no other use, publishers printed as few as two copies; one was sent to the Trademark Office, the other was kept for their files. Occasionally, publishers would send copies to distributors or wholesalers by registered mail to further establish publication dates, but nearly all ashcan comic editions were limited to five copies or less.
After being accepted by the Trademark Office, the ashcans were meant to be thrown away. At the time, waste containers were commonly called "ash cans" because they were used to hold soot and ash from wood and coal heating systems. The term was applied to these editions of comics because they had no value. However, some spare copies were given to editors and other employees to keep as souvenirs. The practice of creating and submitting ashcans was abandoned when publishers began to consider it an unnecessary effort that was used by lawyers to justify a fee. Because of their rarity, ashcans from this era are desired by collectors and often fetch a high price.
In the 1980s, Bob Burden was a dealer and collector of Golden Age comic books who was aware of ashcan comics. He was also the creator of a comic character, Flaming Carrot, who starred in Flaming Carrot Comics published by Aardvark-Vanaheim beginning in 1984. For each issue, Burden had magazine-sized prototype editions printed and shared them with friends and people who assisted with production. Some were also sent to retailers as advance previews to generate interest in his comic. Fewer than 40 copies of each prototype were made, and Burden described them as ashcans.
In 1992, Rob Liefeld applied the term to two digest-sized prototype versions of Youngblood #1, but this ashcan was created for mass release. Instead of denoting the material as worthless, Liefeld's usage implied rarity and collectability. This ashcan was the first publication from Image Comics, a new publisher started by popular artists during a boom period for comic books. The sales success of the Youngblood ashcans prompted imitation, and for the next year nearly every new Image series had a corresponding ashcan. The typical print run for Image ashcans was between 500 and 5,000. Soon, other publishers began using the idea in a variety of sizes and formats. In 1993, Triumphant Comics advertised ashcan editions of new properties with print runs of 50,000.
Following the collapse of the speculation market in comics in the mid-1990s, the term has been used for promotional books. Established publishers such as Dark Horse Comics, IDW Publishing, and DC Comics continue to use ashcan copies as part of their marketing plan for new titles. Aspiring creators also apply the term to hand-stapled photocopied books they use to demonstrate their abilities to hiring editors at comic book conventions or as part of a submissions package.
The term has been appropriated by the film and television industries to refer to low-quality material made specifically to preserve rights to a licensed character, which often expire if unused for a set period of time. One of the earliest examples of this practice is the 1966 animated adaptation of The Hobbit.  Other prominent examples include Hellraiser: Revelations, a 2015 adaptation of The Wheel of Time, and the unreleased Fantastic Four film from 1994.