Friday, August 14, 2009


Up, Up & Away (DC's Golden Goose)

As unbelievable as it might be to believe, within just a few years, DC Comics might not own exclusive rights to the most famous superhero of all time.

It's a copyright case that, literally, reaches back to the 1930s, and has gone through several iterations over the better part of a century and gained new life about a decade ago. The family and estate of co-creator Jerry Siegel won a case this week that recognizes that they -- and not DC -- own copyright to some of the earliest appearances of Superman:

In an ongoing Federal court battle over Superman, Judge Stephen Larson ruled Wednesday that the family of the superhero's co-creator, Jerry Siegel, has "successfully recaptured" rights to additional works, including the first two weeks of the daily Superman newspaper comic-strips, as well as portions of early Action Comics and Superman comic-books.

The ruling is based on the court's finding that these were not "works-made-for-hire" under the Copyright Act.

This means the Siegels -- repped by Marc Toberoff of Toberoff & Associates -- now control depictions of Superman's origins from the planet Krypton, his parents Jor-El and Lora, Superman as the infant Kal-El, the launching of the infant Superman into space by his parents as Krypton explodes and his landing on Earth in a fiery crash.

The first Superman story was published in 1938 in Action Comics No. 1. For $130, Jerry Siegel and co-creator Joel Shuster signed a release in favor of DC's predecessor, Detective Comics, and a 1974 court decision ruled they signed away their copyrights forever.

In 2008, the same court order ruled on summary judgment that the Siegels had successfully recaptured (as of 1999) Siegel's copyright in Action Comics No. 1, giving them rights to the Superman character, including his costume, his alter-ego as reporter Clark Kent, the feisty reporter Lois Lane, their jobs at the Daily Planet newspaper working for a gruff editor, and the love triangle among Clark/Superman and Lois.

While ownership of the Man of Steel is one point of all this legal activity, the real issue is money and how much Warner Bros. and DC owe the Siegels from profits they collected from Superman since 1999, when the heirs' recapture of Siegel's copyright became effective.

DC owns other elements like Superman's ability to fly, the term kryptonite, the Lex Luthor and Jimmy Olsen characters, Superman's powers and expanded origins.
In other words, in 2013, Siegel (estate)/Shuster (who won his half rights in a separate action) could go to Marvel Comics and ask them to do a "back-to-the-future" version of Superman based on just the original concepts of Superman's creators. It's not likely that that will happen, but it's not out of the question either.

This is, by the way, very serious stuff: This ongoing litigation is why there is show called "Smallville," but the character once known as Superboy (of which there was a TV series in 1th 1990s), rarely makes appearances in DC Comics these days -- and will never appear in any other medium for the foreseeable future.

Even though Siegel and Shuster have passed away, don't expect a quick settlement. Both families believe (with some very good reason) that both creators were treated shabbily by DC over the years (even including the guilt-induced $20,000 per year "stipend" the company coughed up in the 1970s), given the billions that their creation produced for the company.

By the time this is all over, every DC editor might end up looking like Lex Luthor.

Payback, as the saying goes, is a bitch.

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