Although I’m “retired” from blogging these days, I’ve had a number of people asking me about the Siegel family getting half the rights to Superman. It’s a somewhat complicated situation, and depending on whom you ask it’s either a landmark victory for the little guy or a shameless money grab spelling doom for the greatest superhero ever. But it’s really neither. I’ll try to sort it out.
As a Distant Planet Was Destroyed…
It’s probably best to start at the beginning, which in this case is the early 1930s. Two young men from Cleveland (one a childhood immigrant from Toronto) created a character named “Superman” whom they made the hero of a proposal for a newspaper comic strip. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster shopped this strip around to the syndicates, but didn’t get any takers until 1938, when an editor at National Publications (the company that would become DC Comics) offered to buy it from them for $130.
It wasn’t a good deal, but it was a deal, and they took it. After all, this was nearly a decade into a global economic depression with wars looming overseas, and the sale included a promise that Joe and Jerry - by this time 23 years old - would have a job, writing and drawing the strip. Their first assignment was to rework the first several strips into a 13-page story which would be the lead feature in Action Comics #1.
It may be a familiar story, but the sequence of events is pivotal to this case. Siegel and Shuster didn’t create Superman as employees of National Publications, as an assignment from their boss. If they had, the character would have been National’s property, and that would be the end of it. In fact, they created him independently, then sold him to the publisher. The end result is nearly the same - the publisher owns it - but copyright law treats the situations differently.
We all know what happened after that: Superman became a huge success, spawning a newspaper strip, a radio program, motion picture serials, and a novel… all in just a few years. Shuster and Siegel tried to get National to compensate them better for their rather profitable creation, but were unsuccessful. To put it bluntly, Superman was worth far more to the publisher than Shuster and Siegel were, so the only time the company treated them well was when it was shamed into it, in the PR run-up to the release of Superman: The Movie. From a legal standpoint, none of this had any significance, because it didn’t affect the original facts of the matter: DC owned Superman, and Siegel and Shuster were just a couple of ex-employees. (The ownership of Superboy is a separate issue; I’ll cover that in another article.)
Congress Gets Involved
Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress was getting busy. To anyone who follows the history of copyright law, that’s an ominous statement. That’s because the reason Congress got involved was to protect the interests of big entertainment companies. At the time, the longest a copyright could last was 56 years, which would mean that Mickey Mouse would be in the Public Domain in 1984. With only years to spare, Congress acted quickly, extending copyrights to 75 years. Mickey would be securely in Disney’s hands until 2004. Superman would be the exclusive property of DC until 2014.
Or maybe not.
In a somewhat surprising outbreak of common sense and compassion, Congress acknowledged that they were giving copyright owners a free gift. When National bought Superman, their lawyer understood that the company would get exclusive rights to the character for 56 years at most. After that, he’d be public property, and their ability to make money from him would be undermined, because anyone could produce and publish Superman stories. The extra 19 years this legislation gave them was a windfall. A free gift.
Meanwhile, Congress recognized that it was common for unsophisticated creators, especially those in the early parts of their careers, to sell their creations to publishers in bad deals. Giving Siegel and Shuster $130 for Superman was like the legendary $24 for Manhattan: in retrospect an obvious rip-off. So Congress included a provision in the Copyright Act of 1976 that allowed creators who sold their creations like this to reclaim them when the original copyright would have expired. In other words, the free gift didn’t necessarily have to go to the current owner: if the original creator or his immediate family were still around to benefit from it, the free gift could go to them.
The Widow and the Orphan
Joe Shuster died in 1992 and Jerry Siegel died in 1996. But Siegel’s widow Joanne and their daughter Laura were eligible to reclaim their half of the copyright from DC. In theory, Shuster’s heirs could have done the same thing, but the 1976 law limited who was eligible to exercise this right. They didn’t want a second cousin once-removed or the church to which a childless author left his estate to try profiting from this provision. It was strictly for reasons of fairness to the creator and his family, not to transfer the windfall from one undeserving party to another. But Shuster didn’t leave any immediate family when he died. (More about this later.)
Joanne Siegel and her daughter Laura Siegel Larson filed the necessary paperwork to reclaim their husband/father’s copyright in 1999. DC understandably tried to prevent the transfer back. They tried negotiating with the Siegels. They argued that her transfer-termination notice wasn’t done properly. (Admit it: If you worked for a company that owned Superman, and your stockholders were bugging you about your profitability, you’d probably do the same thing.) But in March 2008, a judge ruled (mostly) in favor of the Siegels.
More specifically, the judge ruled that the 13-page Superman story in Action Comics #1 belongs to two parties: 1) DC and 2) the Siegels. As far as copyright law is concerned, Joanne and Laura Siegel wrote the story (Jerry’s contribution), and DC Comics drew it (Joe Shuster’s contribution). So they are co-creators of Superman. They are also co-creators of his alter-ego Clark Kent, his co-worker/love interest Lois Lane, his employer The Daily… Star, his boss… who apparently isn’t Perry White, his home planet… which isn’t named, at least in this story. And that’s about it. There are quite a few things associated with Superman that the Siegels can’t claim co-ownership of. Even though Jerry Siegel co-created many more aspects of the Superman mythos (e.g. Jimmy Olsen), he did that later, as an employee of National. So National automatically owned those things, which means DC owns them entirely today.
One could argue that the Superman of today is a different character than the one who appeared in Action Comics #1. That Superman didn’t fly, didn’t have X-ray vision, could only outrace an express train, and (by implication) could be harmed by a bursting shell. DC even presents the current Superman as a different character; the “original” Superman was sent into exile in the 1980s at the end of Crisis on Infinite Earths, and died recently at the end of Infinite Crisis. (You don’t have to be a raving conspiracy theorist to think that this is not a mere coincidence.) But it’s a weak legal argument. The Superman appearing in Action Comics #864 this month is clearly derived from Siegel and Shuster’s Superman, and the Siegels’ copyright entitles them to half of the profits from the character.
It’s Nice to Share
Co-ownership of a copyright isn’t like co-ownership of a house. In the case of physical property, if one owner wants to do something with it, he needs permission from the other owner. But with intellectual property such as copyrights, each owner is free to do whatever they want with it (within reason). The only real catch is that they have to share the profits. So DC is perfectly free to continue doing what they’ve been doing with Superman: publishing comics featuring him, licensing him for use in cartoons and feature films, selling overpriced statues of him to collectors, etc. But starting in 1999, they have to give half of the profits to the Siegels.
Likewise, the Siegels are also free to exploit Superman. But they have some serious limitations on them, because of all the things they don’t own. If they were to produce and publish their own Superman comics, they couldn’t use Jimmy Olsen. Or Lex Luthor… or any of his classic villains. No Daily Planet. No kryptonite. Using superpowers which were added after Action #1… they might get away with that, but only after an ugly legal battle with DC, who’d be almost certain to sue them over it. I’d advise against it.
Oh, and they couldn’t put the name “Superman” on the cover. Or the familiar gem-shaped “S” logo. That’s because those are trademarks belonging to DC, and this copyright transfer doesn’t affect them. If any other publisher tried marketing their character as “the man of steel” (a registered trademark), DC’s lawyers would come down on them like a ton of bricks. So if the Siegels did it, the same thing would happen. The judge also ruled that the Siegels rights only extend to the U.S., and that DC’s international licenses stand as they are.
This means that - as a practical matter - the Siegels can’t do anything with Superman, and DC can do pretty much anything they want. (If DC were to turn him into a baby-raping sociopath, the Siegels could probably successfully sue them for damaging the character’s commercial value, but that’s not going to happen.) They just have to share the profits with the Siegels.
Women of Steal?
So the online detractors of the Siegels who shriek that “they’re only in it for the money”… are right. I don’t think Mrs. Siegel or her daughter have any interest in getting into the publishing business. They don’t have their own vision of Superman that they want to implement. They just want a cut of what DC is doing. And you know what? I think that’s just fine.
Personally, I think copyright terms are way too long. The old terms of 28 years with a 28-year renewal (if you’re still exploiting the property) were reasonable. I’ve even argued that copyrights should expire with the creator: Jerry’s daughter Laura didn’t create Superman, so why should she be entitled to control and profit from the character after her father died? My father’s law practice won’t keep writing checks for me after he dies, so why should her father’s work do that for her?
In this case, there’s a good answer: Because her father was cheated. He didn’t get to profit from his creation while he was alive. If he had, his wife and his daughter would have inherited a small fortune when he died, instead of the little bit he was able to get out of DC. Copyright law is a bit broken, but given how it’s structured, letting the man’s elderly widow and his daughter start claiming some of the profits at this point is a simple matter of fairness. (If you want to bring this up again in another 40 years, when Jerry Siegel’s great grandchildren or whatever are making money off a character created by a man they never even knew, I’ll be happy to change my tune. But for now, I like the sound of this one.)
Man of Tomorrow
Speaking of the future, this story isn’t over. And the ending could turn out very badly for DC.
Remember Joe Shuster? And how his heirs weren’t eligible to reclaim his half of the copyright? About 10 years ago, Congress got involved again. Apparently someone convinced them that the requirements listed in the 1976 act for who could reclaim the copyrights were too restrictive, and when they extended copyright terms again in 1998 (to 95 years), they expanded the eligibility for reclaiming copyright to include more distant relatives. So when the 75-year copyright for Superman would have expired in 2013, Shuster’s heirs could do the same thing that Siegels did. And that would leave DC with no copyrights to Superman at all.
DC would still have the trademark rights, and nothing short of special legislation is going to take Jimmy Olsen and Lex Luthor away from them. But they’d be at the mercy of Laura Siegel Larson and the survivors of Joe Shuster for permission to use Superman, and in theory those heirs could demand that 100% of the profits be split between them, making it pointless for DC to continue using the character (unless they want to publish him at no profit just to keep the trademark licenses fresh). But the heirs wouldn’t be able to exploit the character themselves because of the trademark rights. This could end in a stalemate in which nobody can do anything with the character. Which is pretty damn unlikely, because I’m pretty sure everyone in the Siegel and Shuster families is familiar with the story about killing the goose that lays golden eggs. They’ll work something out… the only question is what. (My prediction is that DC will continue challenging all of this however they can in court, but end up with a cash buy-out of the heirs’ rights.)
In the meantime, the judge in this case has ordered both DC and the Siegels to negotiate a couple of unresolved issues: the ownership of any changes the DC has made to the character since the Siegel’s filed to reclaim their copyright, and how the copyright and trademark rights relate to each other (for example, the DC-controlled trademarks are based on copyrighted material the two parties now share). If they fail to reach a settlement on those points, it’ll go back to court. The court will settle the Superboy issue later. (The gist of that case is that the Siegels claim that Superboy is a separate character, with a separate copyright… which is theirs. And it is definitely not a coincidence that the name “Superboy” has not appeared in any DC comics lately.)
And What About Naomi?
There’s plenty of anxiety about what this bodes for the future of Superman, but this case also has fans nervous about the fate of other beloved characters. The good news (from that perspective) is that the case of Superman is relatively uncommon. Most of the superhero characters published by DC and Marvel were created “in house” by employees or commissioned by the publisher from freelancers, and in either situation the publisher has a pretty secure claim on the characters as “work for hire”. It’s the fact that Siegel and Shuster walked in the door of National Publications with a completed story and characters which they already owned, that gives their heirs the right to reclaim them.
Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko were all working for Marvel when they created most of the Marvel-U pantheon in the 1960s. The most notable exception is Captain America, whose real-world history is remarkably parallel to Superman’s, leading to the Joe Simon filing for his half of the character back. And again - perhaps not coincidentally - the original version of the character was recently killed off. But that’s another case for another day.