Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Superman, Siegel, Shuster Problem

Not many are aware, but due to recent litigation, DC Comics is in danger of losing the copyright to the Superman character (as well as much of his supporting cast). There are circles that are worrying incessantly about this happening, as pessimists tend to do, but I'm going to climb out on an extremely tiny limb and make the following statement: DC lose Superman? Never.

I'll get to why I believe this in a moment, but first... some background:
  • 1938 - Superman is created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and appears in Action Comics #1.  Siegel and Shuster are paid $130 for the rights to Superman and are employed by Detective Comics, Inc. (a precursor to DC Comics). Given that profits from Superman skyrocket over the next few years, Siegel and Shuster renegotiate their original deal.
  • 1947 - Siegel and Shuster sue to void the 1938 contract completely and reacquire rights to the Superman character. They are unable to void the contract but are awarded the rights to Superboy (reportedly published by DC without their permission), which are promptly sold back to DC.
  • 1973 - invoking the Copyright Act of 1909, Siegel and Shuster claim that they never allowed DC to renew its copyright of Superman, stating that the original deal was for only 28 years. Siegel and Shuster lose the suit and its 1974 appeal.
  • 1975 - with public support against it, DC Comics initiates pensions and benefits for both Siegel and Shuster. Warner (DC's parent company) also begins its policy of crediting all-things-Superman (including film and television) to Siegel and Shuster.
  • 1976 - DC extends its copyright again, but the Copyright Act of 1976 ostensibly provides Siegel and Shuster the opportunity to reclaim the copyright between 1994 and 1999.
  • 1992 - Joe Shuster dies.
  • 1996 - Jerry Siegel dies.
  • 1998 - The Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act allows DC to extend its copyright to Superman in spite of the Copyright Act of 1976.
  • 1999 - Siegel's wife and daughter file a copyright termination notice.
  • 2004 - Shuster's nephew files an intent to reclaim copyright by 2013.
  • 2008-2009 - Siegel's estate wins a share of the United States copyright of Superman (international copyright remains with DC), but Superboy remains in question. DC and Time Warner have until 2011 to initiate a new Superman film or the Siegels may sue for further damages.
Crazy, right? If there were ever a case of greed-induced iconoclasm, this is it. Still, there's no arguing that DC Comics took advantage of Siegel and Shuster early on (particularly concerning Siegel's service in World War II). There's also no arguing that the subsequent suits were about an estate gaining assets.

Regardless, motive will not affect execution. And why not? Well, as implied (despite its obviousness), this is all about money. And Superman makes a great deal of money through DC Comics and its licensing. The estates of Siegel and Shuster have to know that, were they to win back Superman's copyright, the character's value decreases immensely. Which is why, I boldly state (okay, safely state), the Siegels and Shusters don't really want the copyright.

First, the Siegels didn't win international rights, only US domestic (making it safe to assume this is the best the Shusters can hope for, as well). And while that market will undoubtedly make the Siegels and Shusters extremely wealthy people, 100% of that share would still be much, much less than a significant share of the international take.

Second, without DC, Superman loses much of his supporting cast. Popular characters who will undoubtedly move on, much to the chagrin of comic book and film fans alike. Doomsday, Steel, The Eradicator, and everyone else not protected under any victory under "derivative works."

Third, without DC, Superman will no longer go on grand adventures with Batman, Flash, Green Lantern, Justice League America, and everyone else pop culture expects Superman to be teamed with.

I am not claiming that DC wouldn't feel the pinch from losing its most iconic character. Of course it would. But it is far more likely the DC would continue to prosper without Superman than the Siegels and Shusters would continue to prosper with him. Adding irony to the mix is that DC now owns a character whose creators it once sued because that character was deemed "too similar" to Superman (Captain Marvel of Shazam!). Perhaps it's been no accident that DC has been prompting Captain Marvel into the limelight over the past 15 years. But who knows?

All I know is that Superman is at DC to stay. And the Siegels and Shusters wouldn't have it any other way.


  1. it sure would shake the comic world up

  2. superman is so yesterday...super zombie is the next big thing.