Wednesday, April 2, 2008
Heirs of Co-Creator Reclaim ‘Superman’ Copyright
District Court Allows Widow, Daughter of Jerome Siegel to Resume Control of Half of Character
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
The heirs of comic book hero Superman’s co-creator are entitled to resume control of their half of the character’s copyright, U.S. District Judge Stephen G. Larson of the Central District of California ruled yesterday.
Citing termination provisions contained in the Copyright Act of 1976, the judge said Joanne Siegel and Laura Siegel Larson, the widow and the daughter of Jerome Siegel, are no longer bound by the agreement by which Jerome Siegel and Joseph Shuster sold the rights to “Superman” for $130.
As teenagers in 1934, Siegel, an aspiring writer, and his friend Shuster, an aspiring artist, created a comic book entitled “The Superman.” This superman character was simply a strong, but not extraordinarily strong, human who fought crime.
Unable to find a publisher for their comic book, Siegel decided to convert the material into a comic strip.
Leap Tall Buildings
Siegel changed the protagonist so that the character possessed superhuman strength and the ability to leap tall buildings and outrun an express train. Siegel named his character’s superhero identity “Superman.”
He also developed Superman’s secret identity as a mild-mannered newspaper reporter named Clark Kent, and a love angle involving another reporter, Lois Lane, who was modeled after Joanne Siegel.
Shuster illustrated Siegel’s idea, and depicted Superman/Clark Kent as a lean, muscular, dark-haired man with chiseled features. Shuster drew Superman in a cape, leotard with an “S” emblazoned on an inverted triangular crest, briefs, and boots, with a distinctive curled lock of hair on his forehead. Shuster illustrated Clark Kent with glasses, combed hair, a fedora hat and nondescript business suit which concealed the Superman costume beneath.
Siegel and Shuster showed their material to numerous publishers but none expressed an interest in picking up the strip. The duo sold some other comic strips they had written to the Nicholson Publishing Company, and Detective Comics acquired the comics in 1937.
Detective Comics—which later became DC Comics—later became interested in publishing Siegel and Shuster’s “Superman” material in a 13-page comic book format, for release in Detective Comics’ first volume of a new comic book magazine called “Action Comics.”
In February 1938, Siegel and Shuster submitted the “Superman” material to Detective Comics, re-formatted as a comic book. Detective Comics then sent Siegel a check for $130, and a written agreement assigning the rights to “Superman” to the publisher.
The “Superman” creators signed and returned the agreement. Detective Comics began advertising the debut of its Action Comics series in existing publications, and reproduced the cover of the upcoming first issue, which featured a panel from the “Superman” comic, in the advertisements.
Because of the reduced scale, Larson wrote, the advertisement’s image only portrayed a person, “holding aloft a car … wearing some type of costume, but …the colors, if any … are not represented, as the advertisement appears only in black and white.”
“What is depicted on the chest of the costume is so small and blurred as to not be readily recognizable, at best all that can be seen is some vague marking or symbol its precise contours hard to decipher.”
The first volume of Action Comics was published on April 18, 1938, and Larson noted it “became an instant success.” But as the comic gained popularity, a rift developed between the publisher and Superman’s co-creators.
In 1947, Siegel and Shuster filed suit against DC in New York’s Supreme Court, seeking to rescind and annul the 1938 agreement as void for lack of mutuality and consideration. Official referee J. Addison Young upheld the validity of the agreement.
The parties eventually settled the action for $94,000 and signed a stipulation that DC owned all the rights to Superman.
Siegel and Shuster filed suit again in 1969, in a New York federal district
court, seeking a declaration that they were the owners of the renewal rights to the Superman copyright, but the district and appellate courts concluded that Siegel and Shuster had assigned the initial copyright term and renewal terms in 1938.
Amid publicity that the co-creators, then in their mid-60’s, were living just above the poverty line, the parties entered into a second agreement on Dec. 23, 1975 in which Siegel and Shuster acknowledged again that “all right, title and interest in”
Superman, “including any and all renewals and extensions of . . . such rights,” resided exclusively with DC Comics and its corporate affiliates. In return Warner Communications, Inc., the owner of DC Comics, agreed to provide Siegel and Shuster with modest annual payments for the remainder of their lives.
Congress then passed the Copyright Act of 1976, and gave artists and their heirs the ability to terminate any prior grants of the copyrights in their creations executed before January 1, 1978, regardless of the terms contained in such assignments, provided they meet complex requirements.
Under the act, Larson explained, “an individual seeking to exercise the termination right must specify the effective date of the termination, and that effective date must fall within a set five-year window which is at least fifty-six years, but no more than sixty-one years, from the date the copyright sought to be recaptured was originally secured, and such termination notice must be served two to ten years before its effective date.”
On April 3, 1997 Joanne Siegel and Laura Siegel Larson served seven separate notices of termination purporting to terminate Siegel’s 1938 assignment, the May 1948 agreement, and the December 1975 agreement, for “each and every work . . . that includes or embodies” Superman, effective April 16, 1999.
Quoting various treatises, Larson wrote:
“’It is difficult to overstate the intricacies of these [termination] provisions,’” and that overcoming the act’s formalistic and complex requirements “is a feat accomplished ‘against all odds.’” However, Larson concluded, Siegel’s heirs accomplished this feat and terminated the rights to most of the Superman works.
Larson ruled that Warner Communications could continue to exploit the material published in the 1938 promotional announcements for the debut of Action Comics, which included the image of Superman, because at least one of the announcements fell outside the reach of the termination notices. But, Larson cautioned, this material is only “the image of a person with extraordinary strength who wears a black and white leotard and cape.”
The material subject to termination, Larson held, was “the entire storyline from
Action Comics, Vol. 1, Superman’s distinctive blue leotard (complete with its inverted triangular crest across the chest with a red “S” on a yellow background), a red cape and boots, and his superhuman ability to leap tall buildings, repel bullets, and run faster than a locomotive,” which were not depicted in the announcements.
Warner Bros. Entertainment issued a statement reiterating that the company had maintained the rights to exploit the advertisements for Action Comics’ first issue and anticipating that Siegel’s heirs will seek reconsideration of that part of the ruling.
“Substantial issues relating to the accounting of profits were ruled in our favor, including foreign source profits, profits on pre-termination Superman works (anything produced pre-1999) and trademark-related revenues,” the statement read.
The court’s ruling did not affect Warner Communications’ international distribution rights to the Superman character. It also reserved the questions of how much the company owes Siegel’s heirs for its use of the character since the April 16, 1999 termination date, and whether the company owes the heirs a share in the profits from other Warner subsidiaries’ exploitation of the Superman copyright for trial.
The estate of co-creator Joseph Shuster also has filed termination notices effective in 2013, Los Angeles attorney Marc Toberoff told the MetNews. Toberoff represents the Siegel heirs as well as Shuster’s estate.
“Jerry Siegel created a cultural icon for which we owe him a debt of gratitude, and [Warner Communications] owes the Siegel family a huge debt, literally,” Toberoff said. “Finally, after 70 years the Siegels have a little ‘truth, justice and the American way.’”
The case is Siegel v. Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., CV-04-8400-SGL (RZx).
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company