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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Thanks, Ed

Since I've been rather out of pocket and sorts this week, I'm glad just the scent of football in the zeitgeist has inspired Ed McGonigal to do some RT posting. Who knows, maybe we can convince him to come back and re-launch the Weekly Picks?


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Tony Award Winner

He's a trailblazer. The first African-American to take the top prize in his chosen profession. And, despite a rather understated demeanor, he's proven that he may be the most formidable politician in the game.

Barack Obama?

Oh, please.

No, we're talking about Tony Dungy.

The political skills of the former Indianapolis Colts head coach -- and first black coach to win the Super Bowl -- were demonstrated this week by his ability to help get the most hated football player ever back in the NFL The Philadelphia Eagles' signing of Michael Vick Thursday completely came out of nowhere. Nearly all of the NFL teams had said that they had no interest in signing Vick. That list included Philadelphia. Most analysts predicted that Vick would be signing with the neophyte United Football League which would start its six-game schedule in October.

Guess again.

Apparently it helps to have -- if not God -- at least a "Godly" man on your side. That's a perfect description of Dungy. He's respected as a straight-talking man of faith. While he doesn't discuss politics much, he doesn't avoid it either. Two years ago, he raised a bit of controversy over his support of "traditional marriage" -- i.e., between a man and a woman.

To get back into football, Vick had to get Dungy to trust him, because, for Dungy trust is everything. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell made it pretty clear that he was furious at Vick for lying to him back in 2007 about the level of Vick's involvement in dog-fighting. Vick realized that Goodell wouldn't take Vick's word alone that he was contrite over his misdeeds. But Goodell would take Dungy's. The freshly retired coach took on combined roles mentor to Vick/adviser to Goodell on Vick -- and general intermediary between Vick and the broader League. As one writer put it, Dungy has become, "the athlete whisperer."

Yet, it's also the case that Dungy wasn't acting like a sleazy agent when he said on Wednesday "I think something [on a signing]l will happen this week." Vick signed the next day.

Friday, at the big press conference, Dungy wasn't just right there, practically was the press conference:

Andy Reid, the actual coach of the Eagles, turned the proceedings over to "Coach Dungy," who did most of the talking. It seems clear that he was the broker of this deal, not because Vick needed an agent, but because he needed a stamp of approval from a respected private citizen. He didn't have to make a pitch. The league's coaches came to Dungy for answers. Can he play? Can we trust him? Will you vouch for him? The Tony Dungy Rehabilitation Program has done a tremendous service to Michael Vick, one that few other athletes have ever been given.


If this works—and really, it already has—this could be the path to respectability that more and more athletes choose, for both honest and cynical reasons. Will Dungy become like the Jesse Jackson or Bill Clinton of sports, rushing to the scenes of crimes to give voice to the voiceless? (The difference being that Dungy sincerely wants to help other people, not just Tony Dungy's Ego..)

It's hardly likely that Dungy would avail himself of every "troubled" athlete who came. This was a unique situation (pro athletes get into trouble with the law over substance abuse, significant-other situations and so on all the time. Dog-fighting? Now, that's a bit different.). Besides crisis management is hardly something that fits Dungy's character, as a man of character.

Somebody like Dungy can only put his reputation on the line in this manner very rarely. Which is why to be American' Greatest Politician, it's pretty much a one-shot deal.

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Eagles get big Vick-tory

Dog lovers among NFL fans have probably become Philadelphia Eagle haters with the news of the Eagles' signing of convicted dog-fighter Mike Vick. But from my experience growing up in the Philly area, I suspect most Eagle fans would happily shoot their own dog if Vick turns out to be a good player for them.

That is the primary reason Vick-to-Philly is a good move. Playing Vick on a part-time basis should actually be good for both the Eagles and Vick, because it forces opposing defenses to prepare for Vick in addition to the rest of the Eagles' offense. Frankly, I don't envy opposing defensive coordinators trying to prepare for the Eagles this year.

Having watched Vick for many years in Atlanta, I can tell the Philly fans: Vick can make your day or break your heart with his performances. However, if the Eagles play him on a limited basis, he should be much more effective. In addition, the rest of the offense should benefit from his presence, especially Donovan McNabb. Just don't get the idea that Vick can replace McNabb, because it ain't happening.

As for Vick himself, landing anywhere would have been good, but landing in Philadelphia has the most upside. Philly fans would love a Nazi-sympathizing mass murderer if he could play a great game of football. If Vick brings them a Super Bowl win, the city of Philadelphia might legalize dogfighting in his honor. You could say the Philly fans are just that rabid.

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Thursday, August 13, 2009


Your health care is in the mail

"People say, well, how can a private company compete against the government? If you think about it, UPS and FedEx are doing just fine. Right? No, they are. I mean, it's the post office that's always having problems." - President Barack Obama
Ironically, when President Obama made the above statement to defend how a public option for health care would not put private health insurance out of business, he actually made the argument against having a public option at all.

But let's take his comparison a step further. Think about the mailings for which you use the post office, versus the mailings for which you use UPS or Fedex. A simple greeting card? The post office is good enough, because if it doesn't get there, it doesn't matter (you can always tell grandma that you sent it). A business package which could cost you a deal? Fedex it.

Health care should work similarly: If you have important health problems, you will probably use the private option. If you are healthy, you will probably use the public option. Unfortunately, like in mailings, this will cause the price disparity to grow between the two options. As more unhealthy people choose the private health insurance, it will become prohibitively expensive, sending more people who cannot afford the private option into the public option. In turn, this will cause them to receive "post office"-quality health care, when they really need it "Fedex".

This begs the question of what the government response will be when the public option becomes more expensive than they expect? If it is anything like
their handling of the post office, you can expect funding cutbacks. In health care, that means lower quality, or fewer available treatments.

In other words, the poor people who cannot afford the private option will STILL not be getting equal health care. But what if the government were to force the private insurers to charge the same thing as the public option?

Just consider what would happen to UPS and Fedex if the government forced them to charge what the post office does. Simply put, they would either go out of business, or provide approximately the same quality service you get at the post office.

Translate that possibility to health care, and the results are scary.

On the bright side, Obama's original quote above might be a nail in the coffin of this health care fiasco. At the very least, it should have the opposite effect of what he hoped to accomplish, and effectively kill the public option. If we don't need the post office to mail packages, why would we need a public option in health insurance?

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Tuesday, August 11, 2009


Sinking Mae-flower

Want to know where the next busting asset bubble will be? In the same place as the last one, according to the Wall Street Journal:
Much to their dismay, Americans learned last year that they “owned” Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Well, meet their cousin, Ginnie Mae or the Government National Mortgage Association, which will soon join them as a trillion-dollar packager of subprime mortgages. Taxpayers own Ginnie too.

Only last week, Ginnie announced that it issued a monthly record of $43 billion in mortgage-backed securities in June. Ginnie Mae President Joseph Murin sounded almost giddy as he cheered this “phenomenal growth.” Ginnie Mae’s mortgage exposure is expected to top $1 trillion by the end of next year—or far more than double the dollar amount of 2007...Earlier this summer, Reuters quoted Anthony Medici of the Housing Department’s Inspector General’s office as saying, “Who would have predicted that Ginnie Mae and Fannie Mae would have swapped positions” in loan volume?

Ginnie’s mission is to bundle, guarantee and then sell mortgages insured by the Federal Housing Administration, which is Uncle Sam’s home mortgage shop. Ginnie’s growth is a by-product of the FHA’s spectacular growth. The FHA now insures $560 billion of mortgages—quadruple the amount in 2006. Among the FHA, Ginnie, Fannie and Freddie, nearly nine of every 10 new mortgages in America now carry a federal taxpayer guarantee.

Herein lies the problem. The FHA’s standard insurance program today is notoriously lax. It backs low downpayment loans, to buyers who often have below-average to poor credit ratings, and with almost no oversight to protect against fraud. Sound familiar? This is called subprime lending—the same financial roulette that busted Fannie, Freddie and large mortgage houses like Countrywide Financial.

On June 18, HUD’s Inspector General issued a scathing report on the FHA’s lax insurance practices. It found that the FHA’s default rate has grown to 7%, which is about double the level considered safe and sound for lenders, and that 13% of these loans are delinquent by more than 30 days. The FHA’s reserve fund was found to have fallen in half, to 3% from 6.4% in 2007—meaning it now has a 33 to 1 leverage ratio, which is into Bear Stearns territory. The IG says the FHA may need a “Congressional appropriation intervention to make up the shortfall.”
(Bold part added)

That is another trillion dollar exposure. Even if you assume the FHA maintains the default rate at it's current level of 7%, that is still another $70 billion down the drain.

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." - George Santayana
Is this a case where everyone has quickly forgotten what started this recession? Or is this a case where no one has learned anything from it? I think the variation on Santayana's saying is more appropriate: Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

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Hillary's '90s Flashback

After losing to Barack Obama last year -- and then having to go work for him -- one would have thought that some of Hillary Clinton's fabled anger would have come to the surface before now.

But, of course, the lady usually can hold all these things back -- except when it involves Bill Clinton.

That truism was on display Monday when the usually unflappable secretary of state just lost it in response to a Congolese student's rather innocent question -- which was actually mistranslated to Secretary Clinton:

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lost her cool Monday after a Congolese student, speaking through a translator, asked her what "Mr. Clinton" thought about a Chinese trade deal with the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

"You want me to tell you what my husband thinks?" Clinton replied, clearly irked by the thought of being her husband Bill's spokeswoman.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lost her cool Monday after a Congolese student, speaking through a translator, asked her what "Mr. Clinton" thought about a Chinese trade deal with the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

"You want me to tell you what my husband thinks?" Clinton replied, clearly irked by the thought of being her husband Bill's spokeswoman.


As America learned during the '90s, with the Clintons, you may get a fair portion of competence and skill on the policy side -- but you also get about two parts soap-opera and high drama for every part of the serious stuff. That was true before the Monica Lewinsky saga broke -- though that cultural and political watershed was the greatest manifestation of that trend.

After six months staying out of the global spotlight, Bill Clinton came back with a vengeance last week as the public point man for the release of journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee from a North Korean prison. The scene at the Burbank, California airport when the Clinton delegation returned was almost a perfect scene of '90s redux: Bill got the headlines (and the girls); Al Gore stood on the sidelines. Only thing was, Hillary was, literally, out of the picture. She was already launching her Africa visit.

It must have been truly frustrating. As was widely known, the actual deal for the release of the journalists was cut by the State Department -- run by Hillary Rodham Clinton -- well before Bill came on the scene. He was merely the last bargaining chip requested by Pyongyang.

Yet, one would think -- from the fawning headlines -- that this was a total Bill Clinton production: The Big Dog was back on the scene, bringing good times -- just like the Nineties.

Hillary thought all this had been behind her. She was no longer "First Lady." She has had three semi-careers in the nine years since Bill left the presidency -- senator, presidential candidate, secretary of state. And now, in one moment, Bill had eclipsed her again -- after she had done all the hard work!!

No wonder she snapped when she thought she was being turned into a mouthpiece for her husband.

One person certainly doesn't have nostalgia for the 1990s.

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