The Never-ending Battle for Truth, Justice and Superman’s Copyright

A comics news article

 

by Ryan Thomas Riddle

The battle rampaged through the streets of Metropolis, in the skies above and even into the skyscrapers. Bread crumbs of ash, concrete and steel strewn in its wake. Two titans duked it out, each blow causing a sonic boom. Fists slammed into flesh, tearing ligaments, snapping tendons and splintering bones. An invincible man whose skin couldn’t be penetrated bled. His face was bruised, battered. His opponent, Doomsday, cocked his arm back once again and with a force unfathomable, incalculable by our understanding of physics, struck the fatal blow. 

A superman fell from the sky that day. His red cape, tattered and frayed, swayed against a pike of twisted steel, like a flag at half-mast. In a comic book panel etched in the minds of fans everywhere, Superman died on the streets of the city he swore his life to protect, cradled in the arms of the woman he loved. 

A defining battle from Superman's past

Like that battle, Warner Bros. and DC Comics struck a victorious blow recently to the heirs of Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. The punch, however, didn’t come from a fist, but from a federal judge’s ruling

Despite what other news reports have said, that victory may not be quite as fatal as Doomsday’s blow, said one legal nonprofit that advocates for creator’s rights.

But if both sides don’t reach a settlement in the case soon, it could spell the death of Superman all over again, according to the New York Times bestselling author who’s written perhaps the most comprehensive portrait of the character. 

 

A Clear Victory?  

 

On Oct. 17, U.S. District Judge Otis Wright sided with DC Comics in the never-ending court battle with the heirs of Sigel and Shuster, who want to wrangle back the copyright to the world’s greatest hero. 

In short, Wright found a 1992 agreement with Jean Peavy, Shuster’s sister, trumps the Shuster family’s current attempts to terminate the copyright. As Wright wrote in his ruling: 

“In other words, the 1992 Agreement first settled all claims, and then granted DC ‘such rights’ as were just settled, essentially revoking and regranting all copyright agreements and interest.” 

The agreement was signed shortly after Shuster’s death that year.  DC agreed to pay off the artist’s final debts and pay $25,000 a year to Peavy for the rest of her life. The trade-off: Peavy and Shuster’s brother, Frank, vowed never to go after the rights to Superman. Something that Peavy avowed each time DC gave her an additional bonus. That deal, Wright wrote, invalidates any previous agreements and termination claims, citing similar cases involving Lassie, Winne the Pooh and John Steinbeck’s widow. 

Joe Shuster with original Superman art

“This is clearly a ‘victory’ for DC, but it may not be as huge a victory as has been reported or as it may look on the facts,” said Shaun Spalding, attorney and assistant director of New Media Rights, a nonprofit advocacy group for creator rights.  That’s because the Shuster heirs argued that their previous agreement with DC was ambiguous, said Spalding. 

The 1992 agreement clearly states: 

“We [DC] ask you to confirm by your signatures below that this agreement fully settles all claims to payments or other rights or remedies which you may have under any other agreement or otherwise, whether now or hereafter existing regarding any copyrights, trademarks, or other property right in any and all work created in whole or in part by your brother, Joseph Shuster, or any works based thereon. In any event, you now grant to us any such rights and release us, our licensees and all others acting with our permission, and covenant not to assert any claim of right, by suit or otherwise, with respect to the above, now and forever.” 

According to Spalding, DC’s legal team was “pretty thorough in fully preventing the Shuster estate from disputing DC’s ownership of Superman in any way.” In other words, that pretty much handcuffs the Shuster heirs from ever claiming any ownership over Superman. 

“It would’ve been strange if DC didn’t win this claim,” said Spalding. 

Wright also concluded that the Shusters had no rights to Superman when they tried to sell them off between 2001 and 2003. Which is significant, said Spalding and second year law student and New Media Rights legal clerk Matt Prelberg, because it brings DC closer to definitively proving who owns what rights to Superman. 

Siegel and Shuster's original Superman pitch

Nevertheless, most news outlets, comic book or otherwise, called this a crowning victory for DC.  The LA Times reported that had Wright sided with the heirs, DC and Warner Bros. would have to reach a new agreement with the heirs to continue using Superman’s most defining elements, such as Clark Kent and Lois Lane. That’s because a judge in 2008 gave the Siegel heirs 50% ownership of character based on his first appearance. Under copyright law, Warner’s can continue to use the character but has to pay half the profits to the heirs. 

Currently, the appeals court is mulling over that 2008 decision. The conclusion of that case will be “the final, definitive victory DC wants,” said Spalding. 

 

An Open Door to A Quick Settlement 

 

The recent ruling, however, could be an open door to a quick settlement, said Larry Tye, author of Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero, in an email. 

“The Shuster’s ruling, if it’s upheld, would have seemed to make a settlement a bit easier, since it would be just with Laura [Jerry Siegel’s daughter],” said Tye.  And since the Shuster heirs share the same attorney as Laura Siegel Larson, they’d no doubt accept what she agreed to, he adds. 

Tye's epic examination of the history of Superman

But that settlement might not come anytime soon. That’s because of an open letter from Laura Siegel Larson, addressed to Superman fans worldwide, sent out nearly a week before the ruling. The letter slams Warner’s conduct during the case, especially their court room attacks against the heirs’ attorney, Marc Toberoff, whom the studio accuses of obfuscating crucial information in the case. 

Laura was pretty steadfast that she won’t back down anytime soon: 

“Now the torch is in my hands and I won’t be silent any longer about Warner Bros.’ tactics. I refuse to be bullied or deterred from enforcing my family’s rights, and fully support my attorney who has tirelessly defended them. Warner Bros.’ smear campaign has only made me more determined than ever.” 

Seems Laura won’t allow the locomotive that is Warner Bros. pummel her or her claims to her family’s rights down. 

 “Laura’s letter, however, punctures my optimism that a settlement is near,” said Tye. “She doesn’t sound like someone who is about to sign.” 

But failure to reach a settlement could be as fatal as a chunk of Kryptonite for the Man of Steel, according to Tye. 

“Failure to reach a settlement can only mean bad things for Superman,” said Tye.  “With his ownership rights up in the air — or rather divvied up between his publisher and his co-creator’s daughter — I worry whether anyone will be willing, beyond next summer’s planned release of the Man of Steel movie — to continue to invest in the world’s greatest superhero if they’re not sure what share of the profits they’d get. What we need now, I think, is a judge with the wisdom of Solomon who realizes that dividing up our baby could kill him.” 

Poster for the upcoming Superman film, the second recent attempt by WB to revive the character's film franchise

In the end, it seems the entire never-ending battle of Superman’s creators and their publisher really is a “cautionary tale for writers and artists everywhere,” as Laura puts it in her letter. 

 

A Cautionary Tale 

 

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Superman was created in the 1930s, with Siegel on the typewriter and Shuster holding the pencil. Seemed like every newspaper comic strip syndicate turned down Siegel and Shuster’s creation before DC Comics picked up the character. Superman first took flight in Action Comics No. 1 in 1938 and the rest is history. 

Over the 70-some odd decades since Superman debuted, the character has earned billions of dollars for DC Comics. Money earned because the company cut a $130 check to the boys from Cleveland for the copyright on Superman — the comic book industry’s original sin, as noted Tye in his book.  

Siegel and Shuster failed to get control of their creation back in 1948, when New York Court sided with DC.  In the 1970s, they entered into an agreement with DC Comics where they would both get $75,000 each, lifetime annual payments of $80,000 and other benefits, such as survivor payments and insurance, according to court documents. The deal also included credits on new Superman works. In exchange, they abdicated their ownership of Big Blue’s copyright, acknowledging that DC owned it as firmly as Morgan Edge owned the Daily Planet.

Siegel and Shuster at work

However, the heirs claimed, in those same documents, that the agreement instead called for monthly payments of $20,000 and a lump sum payment of $17,500.

In the 1990s, Jerry Siegel’s wife along with Laura attempted to terminate the copyright under a 1976 law that allows creators to recover rights, under certain circumstances. That same decade, a congressional act gave heirs additional copyright termination rights. And so began the lengthy battle waged not in the streets of Metropolis, but in the courts. 

But there was a ray of hope for the Siegels when a federal judge in 1998 ruled the family was entitled to a share of the copyright. That ruling also opened the door to the Shuster heirs gaining rights on Superman as well by 2013.  

The following year, however, the court once again sided with Warner Bros., saying the Siegel heirs could only pursue money from DC and not the studio. That same ruling also determined that if Warner Bros. didn’t make a new Superman movie by 2011, the Siegels could sue to recover damages. Which has been speculated to be the reason Warner rushed into production next summer’s blockbuster, Man of Steel, directed by Zack Synder. 

 

Up, Up and Away? 

 

The story that is the “Copyright of Superman” is far from over as both sides get ready to duke it out once again on Nov. 5 in appeals court. 

As for the lasting effects of this recent ruling, it might not hold much water should other comic creators’ heirs take on the big boys, such as DC or Marvel. Another court could look at this ruling and find it persuasive, but is under no obligation to follow Wright’s thinking at all, according to Spalding and Prelberg.

Nevertheless, this is a huge cautionary tale for comic creators working with creative partners, they said.  As they point out, there are thousands of writer/artist teams working without contracts that states clearly who owns what. Without an agreement, both creators have 100% controlling interest and full control over who they give the rights to, even if it’s against their will, they said. 

Siegel and Shuster at an exhibit of Superman art

“If anyone signed the exact same release that Shuster signed, they should know that, more likely than not, the release was valid and they don’t own what they signed off for anymore,” said Spalding.  A release that also had the unfortunate side effect of selling off the Siegels' rights as well. 

“This is one of the many new nightmares for the Siegel estate to deal with in figuring out what they own and for everyone, including DC, to get closure,” said Spalding. 

But will closure come on Nov. 5? Pick up the next issue in this never-ending battle.  


Ryan Thomas Riddle is an award-winning writer for his work as a mild-mannered reporter for a great Bay Area newspaper, The Daily Post. He's now the Editor at ZURB, where he is a champion of online product design. His previous work has also appeared in the San Francisco Bay Guardian. He is an occasional starship commander and secretly suspects he is a Time Lord. You can read all about his adventures through time and space on Twitter @ryantriddle and on his Facebook fan page

 

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