Everyone knows Superman was originally created by two men – Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster – whose creation first appeared in Action Comics #1. As of last week, a judge ruled that the heirs of Jerry Siegel were to receive half the copyright of that material back. What does this mean exactly? Well, if I had to distill the story down into only two wildly oversimplified bulletpoints, then know this – DC may have just lost half the profits they make (and have made since 1999) off of Superman, and they may lose the remaining half of the copyright entirely to the Shuster estate in 5 years.
Now, things aren’t really as cut and dry as that – as in any legal case, there’s a lot of room for interpretation. And expect DC/Warner to make more than a couple appeal attempts as well.
But for now…
What exactly is the copyrighted material in disupte?
What the splitting of the copyright refers to is Superman and his world as they were shown in Action Comics #1. This means his Clark Kent alter ego, the rocketed from another planet bit, Lois Lane, super strength and speed, the tights, and … well, I haven’t actually read the book ever, but mostly that, as I understand it. What it doesn’t cover is anything created later – flight powers, super vision, the big pretty design of the S we all know and love, Jimmy Olsen (who had his own long running title that even Jack Kirby worked on), countless details about Krypton (bottle city of Kandor, anyone?), and even Lex Luthor! So splitting the profits? That may get a little hairy, since Lex Luthor’s a bit of a draw himself, right?
Now, how is this possible?
Well, copyright law is a little difficult to easily sum up, and I’ll give you some linkage later so you can read the details, but basically it’s this: Since the length of time that a copyright exists keeps getting longer (thanks in large part to Disney’s attempts to protect Mickey Mouse), the most recent extension allowed a window for the heirs of Siegel and Shuster to pursue the copyright of Superman, which they did in 1999 after negotiation attempts with DC/Warner for a settlement fell through.
Unfortunately, Shuster didn’t have any direct heirs, which is why Siegel’s heirs are getting the spotlight today. However, Shuster’s nephew is the executor of his estate, and as of 2013, an estate is allowed to pursue copyrights in the same manner, so keep an eye out for that five years from now.
Where does that leave DC? Can they still publish Superman comics? Will they be able to if they lose the copyright entirely?
As co-copyright holders, DC/Warner can do what they want with the copyrighted material – but they have to account for the profits and split them with the other copyright holder. However, this is only domestically – DC is still the sole copyright holder internationally. No, I don’t know why. I had a hard enough time nailing down what I know about domestic copyright law. However, after 2013, if they lose the domestic copyright entirely, they’ll need to license the character from Siegel(‘s heirs) and Shuster(‘s estate) if they want to publish comics with the character in it.
What about the issue of trademarking? DC owns the trademark to Superman, after all.
Here’s a big thing – DC does own the trademark to Superman, that S, and all sorts of Superman-related material. So Siegel’s heirs can take Superman to Marvel if they want – but Superman can’t be advertised, shown, or named on the cover. He can’t even have the big S on the chest that we all know – he’ll have to have the S featured back in Action Comics!
This aspect is very much like how DC owns a character named Captain Marvel, but they can’t call him that on comic book covers or advertise him as such, since Marvel comics owns the trademark on the name.
So what’s DC’s next move?
Appeals, no doubt. This would be a massive loss to lose control of the character, and they could always settle. They can even keep publishing Superman material, as I mentioned earlier – though there will be that potential issue of a profit split if appeals don’t go through. But considering how important Superman is to the entire line, they may just decide to keep on trucking with the character, eventually settling with the Siegels down the road. But considering what happened with Superboy, there’s gotta be at least an outside chance of Superman dying in Final Crisis and just getting stripped from the racks entirely.
Wait, what happened with Superboy?
Really? Ok, well, the copyright for the character was recently ruled to go to the Siegel heirs, though the matter’s definitely not settled yet. Wikipedia will have to do for now, because he’s a separate matter all together. But, when it was announced Siegel’s heirs got the full copyright on the character, Superboy was almost simultaneously killed off in Infinite Crisis, and Superboy Prime apparently hit puberty because now he’s Superman Prime, and fighting Green Lanterns. No more Superboy anywhere in the DC universe, possibly even in the DC multiverse.
Also, while DC/Warner still hold half the copyright to Superman, I wonder how big they’re going to be on sharing. After all, Marvel won’t touch – or even talk about – the Malibu Ultraverse stuff they bought over ten years ago, with some people alleging it’s because there are issues about contracts where those characters’ creators get paid for their use.
Got it? Now, all of that was just your quick ‘n dirty version. There is a LOT more detail to be found if you’re interested – which you probably should be if you’re interested in copyright law, work-for-hire status, and how it all works in the corporate world of comic books – so let me point you in the right direction:
UPDATED – CBR sat down with a copyright lawyer, which is brilliant, considering the intricate and confusing rules of copyright law. And law in general.
– Jeff Trexler appears to be the man to link to for the best, most detailed FAQ on the matter.
– If that’s not enough, CBR has another excellent FAQ about this too.
– And hey, it’s no FAQ, but Newsarama’s got a good analysis of the complex legal situation here.
– Intersesting note: DC still owns the copyright on a black and white ad for Action Comics – Jeff Trexler explains again, ladies and gentlemen.
– Need more updates? The Beat‘s got some links and quotes for you, and Newsarama’s Blog@ seems to be updating this post regularly (though I had thought they’d just be adding new blog posts… It’s a blog, right guys?). Also, read through the first hundred or so comments – look at people being oh-so-angry at the Siegels for being so gosh durn greedy as to wish compensation greater than the original $130 Jerry Siegel was paid. I mean, split with Joe Shuster.