By Jennifer Harman
When in my previous posts, I mentioned that DC owns Superman, I glossed briefly over the idea that there was more to the story. DC owns the name, “Superman” and some of his trademarks. Sort of. Because, actually, it’s complicated. Really complicated.
As recently as 2008, DC was involved in a rather serious copyright battle with the descendants of the Siegel family. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were the joint creators of the great and glorious superhero. This fight has lasted longer than 70 years and isn’t quite finished.
Back in 1938, Siegel and Shuster sold the copyright rights to Superman for just $130 dollars. In the over 70 years since then, DC has made millions on its bullet-deflecting superhero. This includes money from the movies, the comics, the merchandise, the television shows, the licensing rights and the copyright infringement lawsuits.
The great copyright battle began in 1947 when Siegel and Shuster, incensed by the fact that they were earning a mere $100,000 a year as opposed to the millions of dollars DC was raking in, hired a lawyer to sue for greater rights to the Superman character. The court ruled against them and the duo subsequently lost their jobs at DC. Shocking.
In the 1960s, the copyright license to Superman expired, and Superman’s determined creators once again drug DC to court, attempting to regain their rights to the character. Once again, the court ruled that the rights belonged to DC.
In 1976, a new copyright law was passed that finally turned the copyright tide in the Siegel family favor (Shuster has no descendants by this point.) The Copyright Act of 1976 had a termination provision that allowed an author (or his descendants) to renegotiate the assignment of copyrights for any work produced prior to 1978. Essentially, the provision was designed so that an author might be paid proportionately to what their work was worth, after the work became a commercial success.
In 1996, the Siegel family petitioned to terminate DC’s rights to the Superman character. This time, the court ruled in their favor.
Because Time Warner owns both DC and Warner Bros., DC tends to sell its movie rights to Warner Bros. as opposed to other companies. This sort of vertical integration usually benefits Time Warner, except in the case of Superman, where it served to add one more complication to the insanity that is the Superman copyright battle. Time Warner argued that the Siegel and Shuster families are owed a portion of the profits DC made off of the Superman movies, (licensed to Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc.) and not any of the profits made by Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc. off the same movies (remember, both companies are part of Time Warner).
In this instance, while Time Warner would have received profits from both companies, Siegel estates would earn profits from just DC. This time, the court ruled against Time Warner.
So now who owns what?
The Siegel and Shuster estates own the original copyright from Action Comics #1 (the first comic Superman appeared in). This includes, among other things, his character, his costume, his Kryptonian backstory and his love affair with Lois Lane.
Conversely, DC owns anything that occurred after that point: Lex Luthor, various Superman trademarks and all profits earned from the foreign market belong to DC.
In 2013, thanks to another copyright extension, Superman will fall under the total control of the Shuster and Siegel estates. Can’t wait to see how that goes.