Superman Copyright issues

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Superman art by Carlos
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Copyright issues

As part of the deal which saw Superman published in Action Comics, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster sold the rights to the company in return for $130 and a contract to supply the publisher with material. The Saturday Evening Post reported in 1940 that the pair was each being paid $75,000 a year, a fraction of National Comics Publications' millions in Superman profits. Siegel and Shuster renegotiated their deal, but bad blood lingered and in 1947 Siegel and Shuster sued for their 1938 contract to be made void and the re-establishment of their ownership of the intellectual property rights to Superman. The pair also sued National in the same year over the rights to Superboy, which they claimed was a separate creation that National had published without authorization. National immediately fired them and took their byline off the stories, prompting a legal battle that ended in 1948, when a New York court ruled that the 1938 contract should be upheld. However, a ruling from Justice J. Addison Young awarded them the rights to Superboy. A month after the Superboy judgment the two sides agreed on a settlement. National paid Siegel and Shuster $94,000 for the rights to Superboy. The pair also acknowledged in writing the company's ownership of Superman, attesting that they held rights for "all other forms of reproduction and presentation, whether now in existence or that may hereafter be created", but DC refused to re-hire them.

In 1973 Siegel and Shuster again launched a suit claiming ownership of Superman, this time basing the claim on the Copyright Act of 1909 which saw copyright granted for 28 years but allowed for a renewal of an extra 28 years. Their argument was that they had granted DC the copyright for only 28 years. The pair again lost this battle, both in a district court ruling of October 18, 1973 and an appeal court ruling of December 5, 1974.

In 1975 after news reports of their pauper-like existences, Warner Communications gave Siegel and Shuster lifetime pensions of $20,000 per year and health care benefits. Jay Emmett, then executive vice president of Warner, was quoted in the New York Times as stating "There is no legal obligation, but I sure feel there is a moral obligation on our part." In addition, any media production which includes the Superman character were to include the credit "Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster". Jerry Siegel, with wife Joanne and daughter Laura in 1976. Joanne and Laura Siegel filed a termination notice on Jerry Siegel's share of the copyright of Superman in 1999. Jerry Siegel, with wife Joanne and daughter Laura in 1976. Joanne and Laura Siegel filed a termination notice on Jerry Siegel's share of the copyright of Superman in 1999.

The year after this settlement, 1976, saw the copyright term extended again, this time for another 19 years to a total of 75 years. However, this time a clause was inserted into the extension to allow a creator to reclaim their work, reflecting the arguments Siegel and Shuster had made in 1973. The new act came into power in 1978 and allowed a reclamation window in a period based on the previous copyright term of 56 years. This meant the copyright on Superman could be reclaimed between 1994 to 1999, based on the initial publication date of 1938. Jerry Siegel having died in January 1996, his wife and daughter filed a copyright termination notice in 1999. Although Joe Shuster died in July 1992, no termination was filed at this time by his estate.

1998 saw copyright extended again, with the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act. This time the copyright term was extended to 95 years, with a further window for reclamation introduced. In January of 2004 Mark Peary, nephew and legal heir to Joe Shuster's estate, filed notice of his intent to reclaim Shuster's half of the copyright, the termination effective in 2013. The status of Siegel's share of the copyright is now the subject of a legal battle. Warner Bros. and the Siegels entered into discussions on how to resolve the issues raised by the termination notice, but these discussions were set aside by the Siegels and in October 2004 they filed suit alleging copyright infringement on the part of Warner Bros. Warner Bros. counter sued, alleging the termination notice contains defects amongst other arguments. The copyright ownership of Superman currently appears uncertain, with a decision "the subject of ongoing negotiation" and an outcome "still pending".

A similar termination of copyright notice filed in 2002 by Siegel's wife and daughter concerning the Superboy character was ruled in their favor on March 23, 2006. However, on July 27, 2007, the same court issued a ruling reversing the March 23, 2006 ruling.

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