An ashcan copy is a term that originated in the Golden Age of Comic Books, meant to describe a publication produced solely for legal purposes (such as trademark), and not normally intended for distribution.
The word ashcan is an older synonym for wastebasket, trashcan, or other garbage receptacle, intended for ashes from a fire. The implication in comic publishing is that the printed material will go straight from the printer to the trash, which was often the case. Ashcan editions frequently contained unlettered stories, unfinished art or even just whatever wastepaper had been conveniently available at the time. Their purpose was simply to justify the publisher's claim to a title, thereby preventing a competitor from publishing a similar title. Ashcans were also produced to demonstrate the publications to potential advertisers.
One example is Flash Comics #1 by Fawcett Comics, which introduced Captain Thunder (later Captain Marvel). Competitor All-American Comics had already published a Flash Comics title, and created a character named "Captain Thunder", so the Flash Comics ashcan failed to claim those trademarks for the company, but it did establish a publication date for copyright purposes.
In modern comics, ashcan editions may refer to promotional comics in the independent/self-publishing market. The term is sometimes synonymous with minicomics.
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