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Updated: Siegel Family Reclaims Share of Superman Copyright

by on March 29, 2008

Thanks to a 1976 change in copyright law, the heirs of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel have been able to reclaim a share of the iconic character.

The ruling by the United States District Court Central Court of California means that since 1999 the Siegel estate has been a co-owner of Superman with DC Comics, and is thereby entitled to a share of the licensing and publication revenues the comic book publisher has realized in the last eight years. The court declined, however, to apportion any profits or to rule on whether Siegel’s heirs can share in revenues generated by Warner Bros. or other subsidiaries of Time Warner, which owns DC Comics. DC also continues to own Superman outright in all foreign jurisdictions where it has registered the character under local copyright law.

The court’s decision stems from a notice filed by the Siegel estate in 1999, seeking to terminate the original grant of copyright to Detective Comics (DC’s corporate predecessor) in 1938. Siegel and his creative partner, Joe Shuster, assigned the rights to the character to Detective when they sold a batch of Superman comics to the comic book publisher. For their work, they received $130.

Under the Copyright Act of 1909, then in force, the holder of a copyright could enforce its claim for twenty-eight years and then renew it for a further twenty-eight. The Act’s authors structured copyrights this way with the intent that copyrights revert to their original creators at the end of their initial twenty-eight period regardless of whether those creators had in the meantime granted or sold their rights to another party. In this way, the original creators would be able to extract a better market price for their creation by gaining the right to sell the recaptured copyright after it had demonstrated its true market value during its inaugural period.

A later Supreme Court ruling, however, largely vitiated this structure by upholding the legality of contracts that forced creators to sign over rights to both the inaugural and renewal periods, and a 1974 decision expressly found that Siegel and Shuster had signed away the second renewal period when they had executed their original contract. They had been unsuccessful in an earlier lawsuit when they tried rescinding their contract with Detective Comics on the basis that they had not received fair value for the character.

In 1976, however, Congress extended the duration of copyright renewal periods by nineteen years. At the same time, it sought to mitigate the effects of the Supreme Court’s Fred Fisher Music Co. decision by expressly giving creators who met a narrowly drawn set of criteria a chance to terminate their grant of copyright. It was under this legislation that Siegel’s heirs filed a notice of termination with DC in 1999.

The judge in the case noted that the 1976 act set a high bar for creators attempting such a termination, but found that Siegel’s estate had been mostly successful. Thanks to an error in the Siegels’ notice of termination, however, he did rule that DC still has the untrammeled right to “exploit the image of a person with extraordinary strength who wears a black and white leotard and cape,” though it would not be allowed to identify this character as “Superman.”

The court’s ruling does not effect profits or revenues accrued by Time Warner before 1999. Subsequent judicial decisions will settle the apportioning of post-1999 profits and whether the Siegels have a claim on money made off the character by other Time Warner units.

The estate of Joe Shuster has also filed a termination notice, which, if successful, would sever DC’s domestic rights to Superman by returning the half of the copyright it currently retains to Shuster’s estate.

Ed Liu and Maxie Zeus contributed to this article.

[Source: Uncivil Society (posting of court ruling)]

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