Previously I touched on the Siegel family lawsuit to regain rights to the Superman copyright. This got me thinking about how I feel about the whole subject.
In 1932 Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created the character of Superman. In 1938 they sold the character to what would become DC comics for $130 and a contract to create material for the publisher. By 1947 they decided that they were tired of getting paid a fraction of the income their creation was bringing in and sued DC to regain ownership. The courts favored DC, and in response DC fired the creators.
Siegel and Shuster made another attempt to regain the rights in 1974. Again the courts sided with DC. However a year later DC’s parent company Warner Bros opted to give both men a yearly pension of $20,000 and health benefits. In addition it was decided that any comic book, novel, film, or TV series featuring Superman would include a credit to Siegel and Shuster as his creators.
In 1998 a new copyright law was passed that opened the door for the estates of both creators, who had by then passed away, to attempt to reclaim ownership. This has led to suits by both Estates. I have found little information on the Shuster suit other than one has been filed.
Of course the Siegel suit is the headline getter as they have had success, having recaptured their half of the original copyright. Their lawyer Marc Toberoff has vowed that they will have the entire copyright by 2013.
The whole situation leaves me feeling torn. On one hand I would like to see the family win as the creators were basically screwed by the original deal. But on the other hand as a fan I want to keep reading about the Superman I grew up with, and with as bitter as this suit has grown anything short of a complete victory by Warner Bros will not allow that.
The Superman intellectual property earns Warner Bros over a billion dollars in profit every year. Even a small percentage of that would equal millions of dollars. No corporation wants to give up any of that if they don’t have to, hence the fight on WB’s side. They have already shown a willingness to alter the story to reflect legal status.
On the heirs side there has been no indication of them caring about the copyright on any level other than financial. Superman’s status as cultural icon and his rich history have not come up in any statements I could find. This makes me question how they will treat the character if they gain complete control.
Here are some scenarios that I can foresee.
Scenario one: Warner Bros prevails.
Result: The status quo is maintained and the estates continue to battle for the rights
Scenario two: The estates gain 50% rights to the entire IP.
Results: WB has to suck it up and pay the estates their half of the profits. The heirs would have a say in how the character is handled.
Scenario three: The estates gain complete rights to part of the IP
Result: Several possibilities here. WB could come to an agreement with the estates to continue using their part of the IP for a huge chunk of change. I don’t see this as likely. More likely is that WB phases out the parts of the IP they don’t own and published an altered form of the character. We may be seeing shades of that now with the DC relaunch. This could also lead the heirs to shop around for a new home for their version of Superman which would be a watered down version of the one we all know and love.
Scenario four: The estates gain complete control of the IP
Result: Well it is possible that WB could come to an agreement to keep using Superman. However with how contentious this suit has been I could easily see the heirs shopping the character around, or even setting up their own publishing house. This would mean the end of Superman as the icon of the DC universe.
It seems crazy to consider a lot of these, but keep this in mind. The courts are not concerned with the artistic integrity of the character. All they care about is the legality of ownership, which means these scenarios or others I have thought of or bothered with could come to pass.