Superman’s Copyright:

The Never-Ending Battle?

With the current focus on the rights to Superman, it’s worth taking a moment to discuss the history of the Superman copyright. Just as Superman the character led the way for modern comic book hero, Superman’s copyright has been long in dispute and has led the way for other such legal battles. In point of fact, Siegel, Shuster, and their heirs have been trying periodically to regain the rights to Superman since 1947.

Siegel and Shuster

Jerry Siegel and Joseph Shuster

Jerry Siegel and Joseph Shuster

In 1938, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster signed away all rights to Superman, which they had created together as teenagers, to National Periodicals (later DC) for a purported $130. Because Siegel and Shuster had created the character independently, their work did not qualify as work-for-hire; rather, they sold the copyright outright. The character quickly became wildly successful, receiving a radio drama and movie serial. In 1947, with the duo receiving less work from DC, Siegel and Shuster sued the company to regain the rights to their most famous creation.

The judge sided with DC, but he strangely assigned the rights to Superboy, then only recently introduced in More Fun Comics, to Siegel and Shuster — on the grounds that Superboy was a separate character. The duo reportedly sold Superboy back to DC for $100,000, but DC removed the creators’ credits from their characters. Time passed, and in 1966 Siegel again tried to regain the rights to Superman — and again failed. Again time passed, and both Siegel and Shuster reportedly became destitute.

It all started to change in 1975, when Siegel issued a press release vehemently attacking DC and Jack Liebowitz, the DC employee to whom the two teenagers brought their Superman, and outlining the pair’s mistreatment at their hands. DC was gearing up for the much-celebrated 1978 Superman movie and certainly didn’t want this kind of scandal surrounding the character. Legendary comics artist Neal Adams led a campaign to help Siegel and Shuster, and DC not only restored the creators’ credits for Superman but put the two on a pension.

It was the attention given at this time to the plight of Siegel and Shuster that created the mythic status of their story in the then-fledgling American comics community. The story was no longer the corporate version, but one in which two teenagers created one of the most powerful fictional icons in the world. Except that they sold the rights to the evil corporation in order to see publication. Cue montage of years of destitution and depression. This myth, inscribed deeply in the American comics community (not to mention being an example in every law school class on copyright law), influenced Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Adventures of Cavalier and Clay. It is equally seen in Rich Veitch’s neglected classic The Maximortal.

Joe Shuster died in 1992. Jerry Siegel died in 1996. For what it’s worth, both received tributes in DC publications at the time.

Revoking the Copyright, Part One

In 1998, Joanne Siegel (Jerome’s widow) and Laura Siegel Larson (his daughter) filed the papers necessary to terminate Jerome’s assignment of copyright to DC. As copyright law had extended the length of copyrights, it had also provided a means for creators to terminate their transfer of copyright — a means of not forcing people who signed under state-of-the-law X to abide by state-of-the-law Y. Thus, 56 years after the transfer of copyright, creators have a five-year window of time to file for that transfer’s termination. This allows the present copyright holders all they could have received under the old law, while still allowing the original holders to prevent their transferred copyright from being extended without compensation. The Siegels’ revocation, were it to be legally upheld, would have taken effect sometime in 1999 — and would have applied to 50% of the rights to the character.

The story took on a life of its own as people began sorting out the complex issues involved. It soon became clear that Shuster had left no children and had no heirs to file similar papers, leaving DC indisputably with Shuster’s half. DC had also trademarked many aspects of Superman’s appearance, and these would not transfer back with the copyright.

The story also lead to widespread speculation, particularly on the internet. Many pondered the result of splitting the rights 50 / 50: would that leave both co-owners to freely produce Superman material, or would both have to agree on any Superman material? Some wondered whether the Siegels would set up a rival company to produce alternate stories starring Superman. DC’s revisions to Superman over the years led some to wonder whether the Siegels should really have a hand in guiding the present Superman. Most felt, ultimately, that the move was really a negotiating tactic with AOL / Time-Warner, owner of DC Comics, in a bid for more money. Indeed, negotiations between the Siegels and AOL / Time-Warner have reportedly been ongoing ever since.

The Siegels got the ball rolling. For a time, there was a great deal of press coverage of creators’ rights being rescinded. The legal windows to rescind transfer of copyright for Golden Age characters were opening and closing — with each one, it seemed, getting coverage. It was a frenzy: some websites actually maintained lists of characters, showing their creation date, window to file, and who might be eligible to file. Legal papers were filed for several such characters, each time receiving press coverage. But it all died down, more in a whimper than with a bang.

Revoking the Copyright, Part Two

What we are now experiencing, in terms of comics press suddenly covering the Superman copyright dispute, comes equally out of the blue. Among others, Heidi Macdonald’s “The Beat” (a blog on comiccon.com) was instrumental in promoting the story this time around.

The reason for this new flurry of press coverage is not news in that case but rather a couple other filings. In November 2002, the Siegels filed separate paperwork to terminate the transfer of Superboy’s copyright, effective November 2004. Although Shuster left no children, he nonetheless left an executor: Mark Peary, son of Shuster’s sister, who has filed paperwork to terminate the assignment of Shuster’s portion of Superman’s copyright, effective October 2013. The date corresponds to another window, caused by another legal extension of the duration of copyright, in which creators may revoke copyright transfers — this one beginning after 75 years. With Shuster’s half also gone, DC would be left with not 50% but exactly 0%.

It doesn’t help that this time, not unlike the late 1970s, there’s a high-profile Superman movie in the works that no one wants to see scuttled.

This time around, the separate issue of Superboy’s copyright, stemming from its legal separation in 1947 from Superman’s copyright, has led to the most speculation. Many have pointed out that Smallville, the successful TV show on the WB network, is based more on Superboy than Superman. DC’s shifting continuity, as always, complicates matters: the present Superboy isn’t Superman as a boy at all, but rather a new character whose relationship to the old could be disputed.

If DC were to lose completely the copyright to Superman, as it may well in 2013, the company would lose all aspects created by Siegel and Schuster but not trademarked aspects or derivative characters created later — with Superboy being a special and separate case. Clark Kent and Lois Lane may well disappear from the DC Universe, but DC might retain Superman and / or Metropolis in some version.

This time around, the separate issue of Superboy’s copyright, stemming from its legal separation in 1947 from Superman’s copyright, has led to the most speculation. Many have pointed out that Smallville, the successful TV show on the WB network, is based more on Superboy than Superman. DC’s shifting continuity, as always, complicates matters: the present Superboy isn’t Superman as a boy at all, but rather a new character whose relationship to the old could be disputed.

If DC were to lose completely the copyright to Superman, as it may well in 2013, the company would lose all aspects created by Siegel and Schuster but not trademarked aspects or derivative characters created later — with Superboy being a special and separate case. Clark Kent and Lois Lane may well disappear from the DC Universe, but DC might retain Superman and / or Metropolis in some version.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics. He currently lives in Illinois.

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